Politics Aren't Friendly in Messy 'Amigo'
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
If you can, take a moment to contemplate the challenges facing John Sayles -- or, for that matter, any director truly deserving of the adjective "independent" as it refers to thought and principle and other matters beyond just financing. The film business is growing more and more like Brazil, with film funding representing either grinding poverty or feckless expenditure. Films like the ones Sayles has made for decades, ones like "City of Hope," "Lone Star" or "Men With Guns," with their big-canvas casts and widescreen sense of space and time, have a harder and harder time springing from the increasingly barren middle ground between the tens of millions needed to make a "Fast Five" and "Transformers 3" or the urban post-modern shot-on-video economy of "Cold Weather" or "Bellflower."
Worse, Sayles' films are explicitly political -- meaning his movies are smashed on the rocks. He's set between a blasé chattering class of critics who agree with his points and thus discount them as the same old, same old and a mainstream audience uninterested in how the political and moral problems of the present resemble the political and moral problems of the past. (Or, more pessimistically, uninterested in the political and moral problems of the present, period).
Perhaps because of this, his latest film, "Amigo," is his first in four years. It is set in 1900 in the Philippines as that Spanish territory is invaded by American forces as part of the dispute over the distant possession of Cuba. In the small town of San Isidro, Rafael (Joel Torre, who also produced) is the unofficial mayor of the village, keeping the peace and settling disputes. The arrival of American troops led by Lt. Compton (Garret Dillahunt) instantly puts Rafael -- who tells the American forces in Spanish "I am your friend," leading to his new name of "Amigo" -- between occupying forces, rebels and the residents of the town. The Catholic church, in the person of the multilingual (and many-faced) padre Hidalgo (Yul Vazquez), is more than willing to play every side against itself. When Compton first takes the town, civilians in a nervy group kneeling on the ground, his commander Col. Hardacre (Chris Cooper) barks, "Get these people out of the dirt -- we're supposed to be winning their hearts and minds!"
To an admirer of Sayles, this seems overly familiar, a pinch of "Lone Star"'s look at a complex community brought together by geography but separated by culture and language, more than a little of "Men With Guns," his Latin American fable of what happens to good people when the army can't keep you safe from the rebels and the rebels can't keep you safe from the army. But there are clichés in the mix here that were carefully and studiously avoided in those films: A tentative not-quite romance between an American soldier and a barely post-pubescent local girl feels ham-fisted, and there are two closing-act moments of irony so obvious that you expect Rod Serling to step out of the lush, verdant foliage.
But the film, shot by Filipino cinematographer Lee Meily, is beautiful, and Torres' performance as a good man in bad times is excellent. And when the troops start waterboarding locals for information, you may roll your eyes at yet another forced parallel between American military action then and now -- until you realize that waterboarding was performed during the Spanish-American war. There are at least four languages in the mix here -- English, Spanish, Tagalog and Chinese -- and the movement of the story can be occasionally halting, as if it can't find its rhythm. Compared to the fluid dancing movement between languages and eras and character-driven concerns of what is arguably Sayles' best and most polished work, "Lone Star," many of his recent films, this included, feel hobbled and lame.
As Sayles' 17th feature film, "Amigo" is uncompromising and uncompromised -- but those two things don't guarantee success at the box office for the filmmaker, nor do they at this point guarantee solid and nuanced storytelling for the audience. It feels more florid and earnest -- a little too eager to make friends -- than Sayles' other films, but it also feels more passionate and provocative than 99 percent of everything else out there. In competition with himself, Sayles doesn't win this time; in comparison with everyone else, he's still standing, bloodied (from a few recent self-inflicted wounds) and yet unbowed.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.