Skilfully blending pathos and humor, ‘Chateau Vato’ portrays the human face of the Hispanic working class in the U.S.
Latino Film Exposes True Cost of the ‘Fake Good Life’
A working-class family moves into a mansion after discovering the death of its wealthy owner. Mistaken identity and a rags-to-riches comedy of errors ensue. Chateau Vato, the latest film from director/writer Tom Musca (“Stand and Deliver,” “Tortilla Soup”), premiered on HBO late last year. Comedian Paul Rodríguez and film actress Elpidia Carrillo (“Mayans M.C.,” “Mother and Child”) star in the film.
This is Carrillo’s first comedic role, and she enthusiastically embraced it.
“I have been a dramatic film actress all my life working with Johnny Depp, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Richard Gere and Jack Nicholson. I always wanted to do comedy, and somehow I was never cast in one. I was labeled a dramatic film actress. Then Tom Musca came to my rescue, and without a question or auditions, he believed in me,” Carrillo said. “I never had so much fun. I loved working with Paul. We laughed, cried, and laughed a bit more.”
She also says the film provides a lift during a trying time. “This sort of thing is exactly what we need in sad times like this. I needed some joy so much in my life. I found joy in being funny and sexy; this is just what I needed.”
As the story begins, we find Gustavo Alvarez’s business taking a blow when undocumented gardeners undercut his prices and steal his clients. What happens when this consummately skilled but down-on-his-luck gardener, desperately trying to drum up new business, stumbles upon a glorious estate that looks like it hasn’t been landscaped in months?
What if this gardener, finding no one home but the underfed dog, decides to audition for the job and manicure the property for free? And what if this same gardener is evicted from his own house and suddenly finds himself homeless, and decides to return to the magnificent estate only to find the elderly owner dead. What will he do?
That is only the beginning of the Alvarez family’s improbable journey. Before the comedic posturing ends, and before the good life tests marital harmony, the real cause of death of the previous owner will unearth mysteries that pit our gardener’s strong sense of ethics against the comfort and well-being of his family.
Poverty and hardship do not drive the family apart — but ironically, the “fake good life” does.
With pathos and humor, this comedy aims not only to entertain but also provides an interesting take on addressing universal dilemmas, with humor and insight on the dual effects of stumbling onto wealth and wish fulfillment. The film is intended to challenge us to think of our cultural heritage and class as a unique strength upon which we can build lives of independence in a multicultural world, rather than discount heritage or even forfeit it.
With Miami serving as the primary location, the film is sociology embedded into this low budget/high broad-comedy concept that results in a timely crossover film that will appeal to all ages and audiences.
According to the Pew Research Center, the Latino population surpassed 60 million in 2019, and they are, per capita, the most frequent repeat moviegoers in the U.S. Despite being the largest minority in the nation, Latinos are still not very visible on the big screen. This lack of inclusiveness offers an opportunity for “Chateau Vato.” With a complete Latino lead cast, the film appeals to all audiences, particularly Latino audiences.
Yet this film’s appeal will not be limited to one demographic. Its emotional journey will cater to a broad audience, both internationally and domestically. It follows a U.S. Latino-themed film formula that has already proven successful with films like “Instructions Not Included,” starring Eugenio Derbez, and featuring a mixed cast of Latinos and Anglo actors. The film made $20 million in its first two weeks in release, with most of that coming from the U.S. Latino audience. (Box office to date: $100 million worldwide).
Director Musca knows a thing or two about producing a small budget film that makes a significant impact. The film he co-wrote with Ramon Menendez and directed, “Stand and Deliver,” received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Edward James Olmos in the lead role of Jaime Escalante and received critical acclaim. Although in a different vein, the casting formula — Latinos in the lead roles — is the same. Most audiences look for films with top-notch talent, production value, and in the case of “Chateau Vato,” a comedy that entertains.
Musca recalls the first day of production on that movie: “I was driving to the set at 6 a.m. I passed numerous Latino gardeners and maids walking on the side of the road, a long march between the bus stop and the palatial homes where they make their living.”
“I thought about how we were making a movie for these people, who are always seen but never heard, and rarely will anybody tell their story. This movie was an opportunity to explore character terrain that had been previously ignored, or worse — portrayed in a stereotypical fashion. I wanted to depict them, not as saints or sinners, but as real human beings.”
Although the predominant point of view is that of a male gardener (Gustavo, played by Rodríguez), Musca says the film’s success will mostly be due to the actresses’ strength. “In almost all respects, the females dominate the males in this film. I worked very hard to write women who were conflicted, have secrets and private dreams — the types of things that give characters dimension.”
Chateau Vato has just enough plot, just enough life-and-death stakes, just enough quirky humor, and just enough mainstream narrative push to make it highly successful.
Cast: Paul Rodríguez, Elpidia Carrillo, Patricia De León, Jenny Arzola, Tomas Roldán
Director/Writer: Tom Musca
Producers: Tom Musca, Tim Sparks
Executive producers: Alex Agrasanchez, Jeff Detlefs, Merilyn Marshall-Cullen, Cheryl Riess, Arturo Smith
Director of photography: Arturo Smith
Production designer: Isabela Isern
Composer: José Luis Esquivel
Casting director: Carlos Rojas
Production company: Chateau Vato Prod.
Distributor: HBO Max, HBO Latino
(Edited by Gabriela Olmos and Matthew B. Hall)