There's nothing extraordinary about mariachi singer Carmelo Muñiz Sánchez, and nothing extraordinary about Mark Becker's documentary profile Romántico. At times, that seems to be the point: By being unremarkable, Sánchez represents thousands of people trapped in similarly limiting circumstances. But Becker might have been better off with a more expressive representative who could tell audiences how he feels, instead of making them guess.
As Becker's meandering film begins, Sánchez is an illegal immigrant supporting himself in San Francisco by busking and working at a car wash. He's 57, and it's been three years since he last saw his wife, his two daughters, and his double-amputee mother in Mexico. As he explains with typically low-key frankness, in America, he can earn up to $50 a night playing for tips in restaurants, while the same night in Mexico might net him 50 pesos, or about $4.50. Living cheaply with six other illegals, he saves money to send home. Then, with no particular comment on his reasoning, he flies back himself. Becker follows him back to Mexico, where he plays more music, makes and sells sno-cones on the street, spends time with his family, and muses about returning to the States. There's no significant insight to this process, and no major incident: It's just life, seen as it happens.
Becker makes no obvious effort to get past Sánchez's mild, seemingly shy affect and expose what's in his head; it takes him the entire film just to reveal that Sánchez is diabetic, and worried about losing his legs as his mother did. And brief interviews with his reticent family reveal little more. Becker sticks to a surface level with his images, too, focusing on talking heads and supremely literal environmental details: long inert shots of an open refrigerator when Sánchez talks about housemates stealing his milk, the inside of a car wash as he discusses his job. The film only comes alive during the lengthy musical performances, when Sánchez's melancholy songs seem to express the longing and frustration his life on two sides of a border must involve. Or maybe he's just a good performer. In Becker's dispassionate, cool lens, he's enough of a cipher that viewers can interpret him however they like, which helps with the empathy Becker likely means to foster. But like this film, empathy without understanding has little meaningful weight.