'The Perez Family' Tells Lively Tale Of Cubans Eager to Enter the US

'The Perez Family'' is the latest film by Mira Nair, who made her first big impression on audiences when ''Salaam Bombay!'' won an Oscar nomination seven years ago.

Less acclaim has greeted her more recent work, but she remains an important screen artist because of the fundamental project underlying her career: to represent the faces, voices, and lives of marginalized people who are overlooked by filmmakers too mindful of commercial pressures.

It's this ambition that led Nair to focus on an Indian street urchin in ''Salaam Bombay!'' and to center ''Mississippi Masala'' on the complex relationships between Indian immigrants and their African-American neighbors in a quiet Southern town. Nair was raised in India before moving to the United States, and knows firsthand the difficulties that confront displaced people.

''The Perez Family'' looks at another situation spiced with ethnic and cultural complications. It begins during the Mariel boat lift of 1980, which brought a huge influx of unexpected Cuban refugees to Miami's already crowded Little Havana neighborhood.

Among the travelers is Juan, just released from a Cuban prison and eager to reunite with his wife, who came to Florida with their infant daughter two decades earlier. On the same boat is Dottie, a barely reformed prostitute who's convinced her new country will offer sensual pleasures undreamed of by Castro's cronies.

Reaching the shore of Miami is easier than gaining permanent entry, though, and both voyagers find themselves stalled in the stadium where unprocessed arrivals are held. Learning that families have higher priority than individuals, Dottie seizes on a convenient coincidence she and Juan both have the last name Perez, as do many others in the holding camp -- and puts together a phony clan consisting of herself, the reluctant Juan, a scrappy boy designated as their son, and a bewildered grandpa who spends much of his time on trees and rooftops, hoping for a glimpse of the homeland he left behind.

Other characters add more layers to the tale. One is Juan's wife, Carmela, long established as a Floridian but still pining for her long-missing husband. Another is her disreputable brother, whose concern for her well-being is rooted in machismo rather than respect. Also present is an Italian-American police officer who finds Carmela as attractive as she is melancholy. Add the colorful background of Little Havana itself, swirling around these folks with nonstop energy, and you have the recipe for Nair's celebration of liveliness, inventiveness, and hopefulness among people facing more than their share of challenges.

What keeps the celebration from being persuasive is Nair's wish to explore more subplots and personality twists than she's prepared to handle. She shows an impressive ability to spin from one interest to another -- now studying Juan's loneliness for Carmela, then spying on Dottie's seduction of a friendly cop, suddenly zooming to Carmela's house for her daughter's view of things, and so on. But none of these episodes is developed as fully as it might have been if the film were focused and concentrated, instead of edgy and easily distracted. While its spirits are enjoyably high, its dramatic scenes seem arbitrary, and many comic interludes fall flat.

With these difficulties noted, I'll add that everyone involved deserves the proverbial ''A'' for effort, starting with Nair, who remains heroically single-minded in her concern for characters rarely given a place on movie screens.

* ''The Perez Family'' is rated R; it contains vulgarity, violence, and sensuality.

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