Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
John Sayles is a quietly consistent, non-bombastic liberal filmmaker with a message in every pocket.
His movies are always interestingly conceived, intelligently developed, and beautifully acted. So
just about the only criticism I've felt for them is their persistent need to preach. Sayles' version
of preaching is far more sophisticated than old-time Issue writer-directors like Stanley Kramer, with
their save-the-world hucksterism. A superior story such as Lone Star hits every
emotional note beautifully and confronts us with a number of refreshing angles on the truth of
Law 'n Order and military rule in Texas. But it still comes in the form of a civics lesson.
On the surface, Men With Guns is similar to other liberal treatises on political horror
in Latin America. It seeks to inform, to make complacent city folk realize that Terror isn't
limited to rogue cultists with bombs. Latinophile Sayles makes use of literary ideas from the
Magical Realism school of writing. This time, his message emerges so smoothly from his material, he
doesn't have to wave it in front of us.
In an unnamed Latin American country, Dr. Fuentes (Federico Luppi) decides to use
his vacation to visit the medics he trained to live in villages high in the sierras. His family
and associates think him too naive and the trip too risky, but he ventures into the countryside.
He finds it to be hell and chaos. A terrorized Indian population has been driven off the land by rich
coffee planters, and is caught between guerrillas and brutal soldiers who kill them almost
indiscriminately. Dr. Fuentes picks up a homeless boy called Conejo (Dan Riviera Gonzales) and
Domingo, a renegade soldier who robs him (Damián Delgado). A fallen priest, Padre Portillo
(Damián Alcázar) tells them how his village was wiped out. All of the doctor's
disciples seem to have been murdered: shot, burned alive, 'taken away.' Yet he perists in locating
the last, in a high and perhaps mythical village called Cerca del Cielo.
The paragraphs above weren't meant to say anthing negative about John Sayles' films; I enjoy most of
them immensely. His thematic content is downright subtle when compared to 99% of other
modern films. But Men With Guns is almost free of characters like the Texas restaurant owner
in Lone Star, a Mexican American lady perfectly positioned to tout needed points of view
about working people and illegal immigrants. We have a positive emotional reaction when she has a
crucial change of heart, but the game still seems rigged.
Men With Guns follows a pervasive theme in Latin American literature about people venturing
into the wild regions, there to be swallowed up by nature. Only this time the subject
is total denial. Dr. Fuentes doesn't realize that the capital of his 'peaceful' Central American
country, where he runs a lucrative medical practice and his patients are well-to-do cosmopolitans,
is an oasis in the middle of a hellish nightmare. Twenty minutes away, the population are mostly Indians
that don't speak Spanish, that live under constant threat of meaningless death. Guerrillas and
government troops vie for control of the land, and the only way to do that is to cripple the other's
influence through intimidation and threats. Civil strife has made the entire interior of the country a
lawless no-man's land, where entire villages are murdered and countless atrocities are
committed in the name of 'making examples.'
Dr. Fuentes' odyssey into the jungle follows Kafka-esque lines. Nobody will talk to him: talking to
strangers is one of 50 routes to being murdered. He follows unmarked paths to villages that barely
have names. Everywhere he goes, he discovers that the young medics he dispatched so proudly are
gone - 'taken away', executed by soldiers or guerrillas.
An orphan kid eventually becomes his guide. The product of a life of Terror, he has no opinions
about anything but survival. A menacing deserter gives us the picture of Terror within the army,
where murders and rapes are initiation rites for a lifestyle of casual brutality. A lost soul of
a Priest provides a flashback about the fate of his village and why he now considers himself a
Fuentes' resolve to find at least one of his students keeps him going when any sane man would turn
back to the capital. His first patient, a general, calls him naive, and his son and daughter warn
him against dealing with untrustworthy Indians. Fuentes is robbed, threatened, and dragged about
like a kidnap victim, but he's no coward. He's like a Latin version of Young Goodman Brown, venturing
into the unknown to find the Truth. The only way he can get it is by human contact, as the evidence
of massacres is well-hidden.
The nightmarishness of the tale allows for a few artsy touches. An Indian woman and her daughter
provide a kind of chorus, as they seem to predict Fuentes' progress while talking to their cooking
fires. Mythical destinations abound in traditional Latin culture. Here it's a town literally called
'near heaven' that the locals insist exists, even though none have seen it and the Army
hasn't located it in their helicopters. It's everyone's dream town - a mute rape victim sees it as
a place of escape, for the Army it harbors the guerrillas they can't locate, and for Dr. Fuentes
it's where the last medic he trained might be found ... if she's still alive. Cerca del Cielo is
sort of a political El Dorado.
The only trace of the Old Sayles is in the American characters played by Mandy Patinkin and Kathryn
Grody. They're a pair of well-meaning but clueless archeologists crazy about cultures wiped out
hundreds of years ago, but oblivious to what's happening unseen around them now. They get robbed,
but it's quite credible that they could pass unawares through
areas where 'atrocidades' are happening. Sayles tries to make them ironic and irrelevant. The
situation in Men With Guns may or may not have been initiated by Americans, but it's something
Dr. Fuentes, the conscience of his country, has to work out for himself.
The story constantly threatens to go off the deep end, but Sayles keeps it from becoming a bizarro
trip to nowhere like
The Valley ... Obscured by Clouds.
The American director gets excellent performances from his actors, many of whom came from the
stage but blend in seamlessly with locals. I don't know if Sayles' pictures play well or are even
shown to Latin American audiences, but they certainly are in a different class than most American
pictures about the Third World. Furious political filmmaker Costa-Gavras made Missing in 1982,
but the film was received glumly, as if politics had no proper place in entertainment movies.
Men With Guns
doesn't bother to convince us that there is political turmoil and persecution in Latin America;
it knows that conservatives won't be watching. Instead, it tells a tale that makes us think about
our own complacent comforts and the need to think about how other people have to live in this crazy
Columbia TriStar's DVD of Men With Guns is a beauty, capturing the lush photography and
interesting musical contrasts of the tale and retaining the theatrical compositions lost in indifferent
cable TV versions.
The key extra is the John Sayles commentary. He's a terrific raconteur and a
calm oasis in the center of a Hollywood filled with directors with something to sell or enthusiasms
to push. He talks gently about the need to counter ignorance and denial, but realizes that
spouting about political conditions is counter-productive. There's no shortage of facts about what's
been going on in Latin America.
More interesting are his stories of how he put together
such a production in a foreign country. The actress that played the 'oracle woman' was actually from
a Venezuelan island, and spoke in a language unknown anywhere else. Star Federico Luppi is already
a favorite from the Spanish-language horror film Cronos.
Sayles' films are quietly affecting, which is high praise in a world screaming with political
opinions. His new picture,
Casa de los Babys, about Anglo women interacting with a Latin
system of selling infants to rich Americans, is an even more sophisticated stealth message picture.
Men With Guns is a political horror film where the horrors are all unseen and undiscussed,
yet need to be acknowledged and believed.
A last note: the disc cover illustration doesn't represent the film well, although I'm not sure
what could. The angel-like image at the top made me suspect that it might be some kind of spoiler
while watching the film. Don't worry, it's not.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Men with Guns rates:
Supplements: Commentary by John Sayles
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 9, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson