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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
Following on the heels of the critical breakthrough of his previous film, _Lone Star_, writer-director John Sayles takes a real chance here.
Although he's long marched to beat of a different drummer, as they say, as one of the few truly independent American filmmakers, Sayles really goes out on the edge this time, giving us a film which is presented almost entirely in Spanish, with English subtitles, as he tells the tale of a doctor in an unnamed Latin American country who undertakes a journey into the rain forest in search of a group of young medical students he'd trained some years before. Not only does he expect us to put up with the subtitles, but he also fills the movie with a largely unknown cast (to most American audiences, that is), of Latin American actors and actresses.
Federico Luppi, the film's star, is an older actor and one I'm not familiar with. He has the air about him of a quiet, dignified man. A city-dweller, through and through, he has always bought into the government's version of the battle between mountain guerrillas and government troops. He's had no reason to doubt the stories nor to suspect otherwise.
Ultimately, though, as the title suggests, this is not a story about winners and losers, about the "official story," but about the effects on the daily lives of the country's people that "men with guns" can have. Whether they are soldiers or guerrillas, bandits or thieves, on the side of the good or the bad, they are simply "men with guns" and the people do what they say because of this simple fact.
The film's journey, started largely out of boredom (the doctor is nearly retired and looking for something to do with his time) gradually becomes a mythical, almost allegorical journey, as he moves from village to village, unsuccessful in his search. It begins to appear that most (all?) of his former students have been killed or otherwise incapacitated, viewed by the rebels or the villagers they went to serve as a danger.
Along the way, the doctor gradually picks up a group of traveling companions, including an army deserter, a former priest, a little boy, and a woman who has not spoken since she was raped by soldiers. The deserter and the priest tell their very poignant stories and the doctor is forced to gradually open his eyes to the realities of the world around him.
As they continue, ever deeper into the jungle, the story, which was never grounded in a specific reality anyway, becomes even more dreamlike and unreal, as the travelers seek out the mythical "Circle of Heaven," a village so high on a mountain and so deep in the forest that soldiers cannot find it and the people there live in freedom. This is a movie that truly verges into the area of magical realism which so many Latin authors provide in their novels, but which is seldom seen successfully on the screen.
If one is able to put up with the subtitles (there are moments when a couple of American tourists, one played by Mandy Patinkin, burst onto the screen, with their loud English and "ugly American" attitudes), the film is a real treat.
John Sayles has sometimes been criticized as a filmmaker for being more interested in telling his story than in fiddling with the camera angles and photography. If that's a valid criticism, I fear for the future of American film. In both _Lone Star_ and this film, Sayles shows us the value of a well-told story in a film, a virtue which increasingly seems to be disappearing, in favor of explosions and special effects. Very highly recommended. Rating: A.
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