Sundance Report: Columbia Profs Can Be Good-Luck Charms, Too

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Zalla at Sundance Monday. Photo: Getty Images

Writer-director Christopher Zalla prepared for a Sundance screening of his New York immigrant drama Padre Nuestro Tuesday afternoon with a lobby pep talk from his Columbia professor. Park City's Eccles Center, where his Spanish-language film screened, holds more than a thousand people, and the young filmmaker was well aware of the many empty seats and dearth of press photographers. And he had even more reason to be worried: A projection error at a prior screening turned the film’s rich blacks into blurry darkness. Key scenes were hard to see.

Padre Nuestro follows Pedro, a young Mexican played by Jorge Adrien Espindola, as he travels to New York City with a group of other illegal immigrants. He has a letter containing the Brooklyn address of the father he’s never met. But another immigrant has stolen the letter and the race is on between the real son and a dangerous con man to reach the father first. “I started this script soon after 9/11,” Zalla, a towering man with boyish blonde hair, said in the Eccles lobby. “I wanted to tell a New York story.” Like his characters, Zalla came to New York from far away. (He grew up in East Africa.) He arrived in Manhattan in 1997 for attend college; he's today settled nicely in his Gramercy Park apartment. But it’s the working people of Crown Heights and Jamaica Plains that capture his attention.

Apparently they capture viewers' attention, too. Silence is golden in a gritty drama like Padre Nuestro — it means they're riveted — and it was silent at the Eccles, except for gasps at the film’s frequent scenes of heartbreak and occasional chuckles at the film’s scattered moments of humor. And there's one other bit of good news: Zalla's cameraman reports that the blacks came out just fine. —Steve Ramos