MEN WITH GUNS (HOMBRES ARMADOS) (1997) *** 1/2
That prince of independent writer-directors, John Sayles, has created a Latin American country. In cinema, imaginary lands are common and generally located in central-to-eastern Europe. Like the kingdom of the much-remade swashbuckling romance "The Prisoner of Zenda"; like the kingdom of "Ruritania" in mostly operettas or comedies.
More rare, more important and far less fanciful are the anonymous countries of reality-based political films. The master of this is the Greek-born French director Costa Gavras. His powerful "Z" and "State of Siege" were, respectively (and most transparently), Greece and Uruguay. The first was filmed in Algeria, the second in Chile.
"Men with Guns" was made in Mexico, with a large majority of Latino crew and cast, including some players who had never seen a movie. Unlike the Ruritanian flicks, the unnamed country is all too believable. Sayles made a composite of several Latin American countries, with a stress of Central America -- El Salvador and Guatemala. But beyond the New World, the substance of "MWG" can apply to other continents from Europe (e.g. Bosnia) to Africa or Asia, to any land where there are men with guns.
In the capital, Dr. Fuentes, recently widowed and suffering from a tricky heart, is thinking of retirement. Played by Argentinean star Federico Luppi, the serious, distinguished, white-haired doctor kept reminding me of John Thaw, the Inspector Morse of television.
Upper-class Fuentes is not too politically informed, partly, says the subtext, because like many a good person, he did not go the extra mile of wanting to know. What the aging man wanted is to leave a legacy. This took the shape of training a select group of his students who have now gone to bring health to remote, Indian-populated places.
The doctor toys with taking a vacation by visiting those students. His decision is firmed up by a chance meeting, in the city, with one of his alumni who gives him bad news and calls him the smartest (read: professionally) yet dumbest (read: politically) person he has ever known.
To find out what dire things happened (or may have happened) to his protégés, Fuentes, exchanging his Mercedes for his son's four-wheel-drive, takes off on a search that becomes one of shocking discoveries. One after the other, he meets Indian people who survive in terrible conditions, suffer from acute malnutrition, starvation, diseases -- and execution by men with guns, the army. There are other men with guns, small groups of guerrillas, who (for just reasons) fight the soldiers. It's as vicious and deadly a circle as can be. The army will execute villagers who may have aided the guerrillas, not necessarily by being sympathizers but, say, merely for feeding them (one wonders, with what?), even at gun point. In turn some guerillas can retaliate. There's no end to this.
Ironically, the bad guys in uniform, are also Indians, and they do the dirty work of the white Establishment. Something here reminds me of North American labor riots in the 1930s when companies such as Ford would pay desperate, unemployed workers to become strike-breaking goons against strikers, their "brothers."
Dr. Fuentes's journey is a road-movie of odd encounters and unsuspected revelations. It is an adventure in strange places where, to borrow the title of another John Sayles movie, Fuentes is like a Brother from Another Planet. Not that the Indians see him for what he is.
Each village has a specialty. They call themselves the Coffee People, the Corn People, the Sugar or Banana or Salt People --which underlines their awful plight and dependence on a single crop. This creates divisions which the geographically isolated peasants are also separated other groups. Few natives know Spanish. Four different local languages are spoken in the film.
English is limited to three encounters with a couple of American "Teflon tourists," as Sayles calls them. Mandy Patinkin and his real-life wife are enthusiastic about architectural ruins but deaf and blind to the plight of the Indians. They are not Ugly Americans but very real samples of millions of strangers in strange lands, whom Fuentes resembled before his Odyssey.
At each place the doctor is met by locals who hide when he shows up and who will not talk to him. Fuentes learns somehow of disasters, including the killing of his students. He does not remain not alone,however. Conejo ("Rabbit") a Spanish-speaking boy of about 10, becomes his guide. The product of a rape by a soldier, Conejo is a pariah.
The film is realistic, also symbolic, mystical and magical. Conejo becomes like a version of Ovid leading Dante in his descent to Hell. He calmly tells of catastrophes, takes Fuentes to a cemetery that doubled as a killing field, helps open Fuentes's eyes to grim truths.
Those two are joined by other characters. First Domingo, a deserter who initially robs Fuentes then joins him. Through flashbacks we learn frightening things about Domingo as well about the second newcomer, Padre Portillo, a priest who has defrocked himself and has terrible problems of conscience. (His is the best portrait of the kind since Graham Greene). Then comes a girl, whose rape by the military has rendered her mute.
The saga of Dr. Fuentes is a most touching, vivid excursion into awareness of others and into self-awareness. Both are inseparable from the denunciation of a regime in which the Indians hardly count as humans, of governments which fear that education of any kind will raise the consciousness of the lowly and cause them to go against privileged oligarchies.
Yet there is no accusatory rhetoric, no finger-pointing, no didacticism. The images and events speak louder than diatribes. Sayles is an intelligent, socially-conscious, caring filmmaker. (He is also a much praised writer of fiction and was the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant.'') He is a liberal in the widest sense, not a bleeding heart.
There is no romanticizing of the Indians. But there is nobility allied with fatalism, especially in a scene where villagers calmly vote to accept the army's diabolical bargain: "Let a group of you accept to be executed and we won't kill the whole village." The yes-voters include the doomed group.
Sayles makes pictures on tiny budgets. This one cost him an extravagant 2.5 million, about one-fortieth of a Hollywood blockbuster. The money was well spent. The filming took the crew to some 40 or 50 locations. Professionals and non-professional actors are perfect. The photography is by a Polish master, the music is superb, whether composed for the film or from extant Latin American tunes.
Rather than oblige his native performers to speak artificial English, Sails used subtitles that are extremely clear, both in their look and because of the sparse use of dialogue, something natural among unloquacious people.
There are just two puzzles. When Fuentes drives around in the wilds without touching the closest town, how does he get his gas? And about young Conejo who acts so well, how is it that he is hungry yet looks healthy and wears acceptable clothes rather than ags? How did he, the pariah, survive? How did he learn his fluent Spanish while the others around him can hardly speak it? The latter might just be because he was, for a while, the soldiers's mascot. Anyway, I won't lose any sleep over it.
" Le mauvais gout mene au crime" (Stendhal)
Edwin Jahiel's movie reviews are at edwinjahiel.com