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Ask the Dust
Reviewed by Garry Crystal
Film Reviews
The Adirondack Review
  Ask The Dust, a novel by John Fante, was published in 1939 and then quickly forgotten. Fante's work has, however, resurfaced in a major way. Robert Towne, screenwriter of Chinatown, has had a life-long appreciation of Fante and has spent almost 30 years bringing Ask The Dust to the screen.

         The film sticks faithfully to the novel.  Set in Depression-era Los Angeles, writer Arturo Bandini, excellently played by Colin Farrell, has used up his quota of optimism. Having published one short story Bandini is now living in a small boarding house and is so broke that he is smoking tobacco rolled up in toilet paper.  Unable to write, he daydreams of meeting his muse, a woman who will take him on adventures that will lead him to write great novels.

         Enter the  fiery Mexican waitress Camilla Lopez, played by Salma Hayek.  The relationship between the pair starts as one of mutual racial hatred; she is Mexican, he Italian. They both desperately want to be seen as Americans. Arturo and Camilla, like many others of their time, traveled to California to live a golden, charmed life. Instead, they have found reality in seedy boarding houses and broken dreams.

Starring Colin Farrell, Salma HayekDirected by Robert Towne  Rated R
        Finally, Arturo has something to write about. He is living his story without even realizing it.  The experiences he so desperately craves are materializing all around him; he and Camilla are the story.  The pair are slowly falling in love while pushing each other away because of their own prejudices. Arturo's main problem is that he desires the life experiences that will help him to be a better writer, but is -at the same time- wary of such experiences. This is evident when the pair take a midnight dip in the ocean. While Camilla dives naked into the crashing waves, Arturo hesitantly creeps into the water, keeping himself covered. The same thing happens when Camilla offers herself to Arturo. The fear of experiencing what life has to offer is holding Arturo prisoner.

          Intertwined within the main story are a fine supporting cast of misfits and losers, each with their own broken dream.  Donald Sutherland plays Arturo's drunken neighbor Hellfrick. Idina Menzel is Vera, a woman with a dark secret. Justin Kirk plays Camilla's abusive boyfriend Sammy. Towne, along with cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, has done an excellent job in recreating Los Angeles of the 1930s.  The set almost makes you feel as though you have stepped into an Edward Hopper painting where you can feel the Mojave sands blowing through the open hotel windows.

         Some viewers may well find the pace of the film a little slow.  Writer's lives are always difficult to recreate on the screen and Ask the Dust is a true story. Camilla Lopez did exist and Arturo Bandini is John Fante as a young writer. The film takes us back to a time where coffee costs a nickel and dreams were even cheaper but the themes of prejudice and  fear within relationships are still as relevant today as they were in the 1930s.  It is a  film that forces you to ultimately learn something from the character's experiences; do you follow your heart or do you let other people's values determine the story of your life?

Garry Crystal is a freelance writer based in Scotland after surviving many years in London.
His short stories and articles have been published in print and on the net. He is currently
writing his first novel and can be contacted at garrypcrystal@yahoo.com.