Film Review: “Beatriz at Dinner”, written by Mike White, directed by Miguel Areta, starring Salma Hayek and John Lithgow
This beautifully shot film, set in the Los Angeles area, dramatically elucidates the social tension of our Trump era. A Joan-of-Arc-like Salma Hayek plays Beatriz, a Mexican American massage therapist and cancer-healer. She takes on a Trump-like real estate mogul, the aptly named, Doug Strutt (adroitly played by John Lithgow), at a small but lavish dinner party at a mansion high on a cliff over the Pacific ocean. The verbal fireworks that ensue are breathtaking in their daring, funny and tragic at the same time, eliciting cavernous divides of class, ethnicity, and environmental values.
The film opens with Beatriz meditating at her altar in her funky bungalow where she lives alone, except for her beloved pet goats. Salam Hayek brings a quiet dignity and spiritual seriousness to the character. We see her begin her day patiently driving L.A.’s congested freeways to her job as a massage therapist/healer at an upscale, alternative cancer center. She’s a respected and loved personage at the center, interacting with staff and patients in a caring, friendly manner, bringing a deep soothing and comfort to her cancer-wracked patients.
But something is troubling Beatriz that day. She’s discovered one of her beloved goats slain outside her home by an irate neighbor. Her emotional upset makes it more challenging for her to give her best in her healing work. And her problematic old car adds to her worries.
After work, she travels the freeways again to reach the luxurious home of a wealthy massage client whose 15-year-old daughter she has worked with at the cancer center. She arrives at the mansion late in the afternoon, just before an important dinner party that her client is giving that evening for the real estate mogul her husband works with.
The woman is more than a massage client to Beatriz and the two share a womanly camaraderie during the massage that is humanly endearing. But when Beatriz’ car won’t start after the massage, a tension arises. Her client is now impatient to get ready for her dinner party, and when Beatriz’ mechanic friend phones that he can’t come out until later that night, the woman casually invites her to stay for dinner, little realizing what an upset she has set in motion.
As the guests arrive, they regard Beatriz at first as one of the household staff. She’s dressed simply, in stark contrast to the more formal attire of the guests. When the hostess introduces Beatriz as a talented healer who helped bring her daughter back to life after the rigors of cancer treatment, the guests politely acknowledge her, but go on with their private banter, leaving Beatriz to fend for herself.
Beatriz gains some courage after drinking some wine, and valiantly tries to join the dinner conversation. Little does she know that this party is celebrating a major victory for Don Strutt and his colleagues who have just bamboozled the state legislature into allowing an upscale shopping mall to be built on environmentally sensitive land along the coast. Beatriz apologizes for her conversational lapses at dinner, yet, fueled by the wine, continues to launch into long soliloquies about holistic healing, environmental consciousness, and her spiritual beliefs about fate and destiny.
At one point, Don Strutt grills her on her immigration status, to the discomfort of his more politically correct friends. This is the opening salvo for an ensuing duel of words and ideas that completely hijacks the party.
“Beatriz at Dinner” is often uncomfortable to watch as it shines a spotlight on some of the most divisive areas of our current political/economic/environmental fracture. It’s a daring film in that it doesn’t offer any easy solutions, and its ending is downright unsettling.
Salma Hayek and John Lithgow are both riveting as the tension of their conflict builds to a climax. The supporting caste serve as a kind of Greek chorus, witnessing the drama and desperately counseling calm and appeasement. I left the film disturbed by the ending, yet grateful that such an artful film had dared to take on some of the fundamental clashes that the Trump presidency has unearthed.