Mitt Romney has a thing or two to learn from MELQUIADES ESTRADA

When it comes to the issue of immigration, Mitt Romney has two faces. There’s the one he wore at his now-notorious behind-closed-doors fundraiser in Boca Raton, where he “joked” to a roomful of fat cats that “it would be helpful to be Latino.” Then there’s the noticeably browner face he wore to a forum on the Spanish-language network Univision, where he spouted meaningless rhetoric about how the answer to illegal immigration is “self-deportation.” He seems so unconcerned with understanding what life is like for Spanish-speaking immigrants (illegal or otherwise) in this country, it’s a milagro he can discuss issues of concern to that community while keeping a straight face.

Maybe Mitt needs to skip the debate and watch THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA, airing tonight at 8P. And if you haven’t seen it — or even if you have — you should watch, too. Directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones, the quietly powerful 2005 drama forces viewers to take the life (and death) of a Mexican immigrant seriously.

Jones brings a world-weary gravitas that prefigures his 2007 role in the Oscar-winning NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN to his part as Pete Perkins, a Texas ranch hand who’s determined to deliver his murdered friend Melquiades (Julio César Cedillo) to his preferred resting place south of the border. Mel was gunned down by a heartless border-patrol agent (Barry Pepper), who’s kidnapped by Pete after the racist local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) refuses to arrest him. The masterful script by Guillermo Arriaga (BABEL, 21 GRAMS), who won Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival — where Jones was also honored as Best Actor — flashes back and forward in time. It depicts Melquiades in all his humanity when he’s alive and doesn’t look away when peering into the eyes of his rotting corpse. As a director and a character, Jones won’t let anyone off easy.

A native Texan, Jones shows a real feel for the arid land near the border, and he’s aided greatly by the stark images of Academy Award-winning cinematographer Bruce Menges (THE MISSION, THE KILLING FIELDS). Perhaps not surprisingly, the actor-director coaxes uniformly excellent performances from his cast, including a pre-MAD MEN January Jones as Pepper’s bored wife and a pre-Oscar Melissa Leo as an unfaithful waitress.

The film’s most remarkable turn, however, comes from The Band’s Levon Helm (who played Jones’ father-in-law in COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER) as a suicidal blind man Jones and Pepper stumble upon on their way down South. Other gifted musicians — including Yoakam, Freddy Fender, Roger Miller and Merle Haggard — contribute to the film’s evocative soundtrack.

OK, I hear you say, “But Melquaides Estrada is a fictional character. Why should I (or Mitt Romney) care about him?” Because he was inspired by a real person, Esequiel Hernández Jr., an 18-year-old high school student who was shot dead by U.S. Marines in Redford, Texas, in 1997. He was the first U.S. civilian killed by our own armed forces since the Kent State massacre in 1970. (The incident also inspired a documentary, 2007′s The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández, narrated by Jones.) While no one was ever charged in the case, the government settled a wrongful death claim with his family for nearly $2 million.

As we know from his recently released tax returns, that’s chump change to Romney. Still think you’d be better off as a Latino, Mitt?

Catch THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA tonight at 8P and all month long on Sundance Channel!

Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics