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Humberto Fuentes is a wealthy doctor whose wife has recently died. In spite of the advice of his children, he takes a trip to visit his former students who now work in impoverished villages. His trip soon becomes a quest, politically awakening him when he finds out that one of his students was killed by the army. Written by
In John Sayles, 1997 film Men With Guns, a widowed doctor, Humberto Fuentes (Fernando Luppi) leaves his practice in an unnamed Latin American country to search for medical students he trained to be doctors in Indian villages under the "Alliance for Progress". Filmed almost entirely in Spanish with English subtitles and based on stories by Francisco Goldman, the film is a fictional adventure story but suggestive of real events. Sayles has said, "As I was writing it, I made sure that almost all of the incidents are based on events that have happened somewhere else, almost to the exact detail."
Naively unconvinced that there is any danger from a guerilla war in the interior, Dr. Fuentes travels to remote areas to discover his "legacy". Soon he finds out the reality. His tires are removed, his wallet is stolen, his life is threatened, and he cannot get any information because people won't speak to him out of fear. He sees starving people, destroyed villages, and people who have lost their hope, while the world is ignorant of what is taking place. Dr. Fuentes picks up several travelling companions along the way; and learns more about the struggles they have endured. Each has lost something close to them. Domingo (Damian Delgado), a soldier has deserted his army, Conejo (Dan Rivera Gonzales), a very wise young boy has lost his parents, an ex-priest Padre Portillo (Damian Alcazar) has lost his faith, and a native woman has lost her voice after being raped by soldiers.
At the first village, a blind woman tells Dr. Fuentes that the "men killed one of his students with guns". When he asks her the reason, she says simply, "Because they had guns and we didn't". The film clearly shows the powerlessness of the Indians and peasants caught in the middle of a conflict they do not want to be involved in. Sayles shows peasants as little more than commodities who are used by the system: the Salt people, the Sugar people, the Coffee, Banana and Gum people, all surviving at subsistence level because of economic conditions beyond their control. The doctor finds out that it does not matter who is threatening the people, they are all just "men with guns" and Indians are just as capable of cruelty against their own people as government soldiers. Fuentes discovers that some of his students have been killed but keeps going from village to village to look for the rest. His expectations, however, are met only with one grim story after another. Weary but not despairing, he and his traveling companions set out on one last journey, a spiritual quest to find a city hidden in the rainforest called Circle of Heaven where the air is clear and there are no guns.
Men With Guns has a point to make but makes it early and often and there is little suspense or plot development in the last half of the film. Mr. Sayles has wisely kept the story as generic as possible but there is no indication of what the issues are or what the conflict is all about. It is well known that civilians and "innocent bystanders" are often the biggest victims in war. Beyond that, what is the film saying? Is it that resistance movements who might be fighting an uphill battle against a brutal dictator should lay down their arms? Aside from the problems I had with the issues, the characters come across as types rather than real people. Oblivious American tourists, played by Mandy Patinkin and Kathryn Grody, are too laughable to even warrant being called stereotypes. Though credit must be given for tackling a subject that most filmmakers would rather not hear about, Men With Guns is overlong and lacking in dramatic impact. Eventually, it veers off into magical realism with much self-consciousness but little realism and no magic.
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