The kind of thing that money just can’t buy

"Casa de los Babys" condemns one half of the baby trade equation but lets some people off the hook.

Tom Horgen

The baby trade. What a nasty little phrase.

It’s the topic at hand in “Casa de los Babys,” the latest moral treatise from indie master John Sayles.

In his newest film, the maverick director serves up a nice plate of ideology. He sees flaws in the international adoption industry – most specifically in the relationship between Westerners and South American countries that are exporting babies. To explore the issue, he creates voices for us to listen to, each a different side in the typically unpleasant business. While Sayles seems most critical of the hand Western capitalists play in this trade, he’s given us a platter of ideas to sift through – the means to make up our own decision.

The film is set in a motel called “The House of Babies,” in some unnamed South American country. A group of white women, mostly from the United States, have huddled together there as their adoption requests are slowly processed.

Sayles shows a blatant disdain for the women. They seem to represent a way of thinking for which other countries have come to hate the United States. They eat, shop, lounge and complain, oblivious to the poverty that surrounds them. They are consumers, and for some of them – the worst says she wants one that doesn’t speak Spanish – their babies are the ultimate commodity.

With a capitalist veil hanging so heavily on these women, Sayles seems to insinuate that it’s Western demand that drives the baby trade.

But of course, the system that manages the adoption industry in Latin America is itself riddled with corruption. In “Casa de los Babys,” though, we only see the low-end proprietors of the trade – people such as the lawyers and motel owners who prolong the Westerners’ stay in hopes of draining them of any excess capital. Unfortunately, we don’t hear enough about the role governments have had in corrupting the system. Latin American regimes are not blameless when it comes to child smuggling and forcing birth parents into abandoning their newborns.

While Sayles doesn’t aim his camera high into the South American political sphere, we do see the effects upper-level corruption has had on the people. We see hopeless children, now too old for adoption, scrounging for food in the streets. There’s a motel maid who often thinks of the life her daughter must have, now a grown child living with adoptive parents. Ironically, the maid changes sheets at “The House of Babies” for the type of women to whom she gave her baby up so long ago.

In just 90 minutes, Sayles gift-wraps a strong foundation upon which filmgoers can engage this complex issue.

His film gives some enormous questions to think about – hard questions. The kind that if you find them easily answered, you should be next in line for Kofi Annan’s job.

The film’s capitalist Westerners might be deplorable, but is any life they can offer a child in the United States better than one of poverty and war in South America?

Or are these babies better off staying in their native countries, based solely on the fact that they are guaranteed their cultural identities – something they might lose in the Unites States?

Sayles obviously leans further one way on this issue than another, but mostly he wants to elicit discussion. He is asking questions that will help the viewer explore the machine behind the baby trade.

“Casa de los Babys” is heavy on screenplay – mucho talking – but debate, rather than didacticism, is the point.