As American cinema has grown more frenetic, the films of John Sayles have only slowed down. His latest, Casa de los Babys, traces the fate of six American women who have been waiting around an unnamed South American metropolis -- some for longer than two months -- to adopt a baby; the film's very premise is built on stasis. As always, Sayles teeters between the emotional and the political -- between his dramatist's desire to portray these women as individuals and his scrupulous leftist compulsion to anatomize them as a class. They're the white, privileged colonialists swooping down with passive entitlement into a landscape of Latino poverty.
Daryl Hannah, looking taller than ever, is a Zen fitness freak who has lost three infant children, and Lili Taylor, in tough-nut mode, is an aspiring single mother who says things like ''You don't need to understand the words to watch TV -- stupidity is the universal language!'' Maggie Gyllenhaal, her face like a rose, is the sweetest of the lot, even when she's weeping into the phone to placate her big-shot husband.
There isn't a moment with this group you don't want to be watching, yet the dialogue floats by in wisps. Sayles keeps cutting away to scenes of impoverished locals, notably a pregnant 15-year-old who plans to give up her baby for adoption. The irony -- that this Catholic country keeps spawning children it's too poor to keep -- would mean more if we got to see further behind that girl's placid Madonna face. It says something that the most obnoxious character in ''Casa de los Babys'' is also the most vivid: Marcia Gay Harden as an angry vulgarian who steals shampoo off the maids' carts and bribes a lawyer to get her baby. Sayles may not have planned it this way, but Harden makes crassness as powerful as any maternal instinct.