AMIGO, the 17th feature film from Academy Award-nominated writer-director John Sayles, stars legendary Filipino actor Joel Torre as Rafael, a village mayor caught in the murderous crossfire of the Philippine-American War. When U.S. troops occupy his village, Rafael comes under pressure from a tough-as-nails officer (Chris Cooper) to help the Americans in their hunt for Filipino guerilla fighters. But Rafael's brother (Ronnie Lazaro) is the head of the local guerillas, and considers anyone who cooperates with the Americans to be a traitor. Rafael quickly finds himself forced to make the impossible, potentially deadly decisions faced by ordinary civilians in an occupied country. A powerful drama of friendship, betrayal, romance and heartbreaking violence, AMIGO is a page torn from the untold history of the Philippines, and a mirror of today's unresolvable conflicts. Written by
October 26, 2011 director John Sayles came to Trinity's Cinestudio for a showing of his recent movie Amigo, a story of American military occupation in the Philippines following the Spanish-American War. It's Sayles' first digital "film," a mode he said we may as well get used to, simply because it's so much cheaper than film and so will take over not just independent cinema but Hollywood as well. What he got on the screen was very nice to watch. I'd not have known it was digital, great color and some superb photography. That may partly be due to Cinestudio's wonderful facility and care with whatever it shows.
Sayles sounds like a Rhodes scholar, obviously very intelligent, but what really struck me is how much he has to say. He's engaged, he cares, he's interested, curious and thoughtful. He clearly did a lot of research on his subject and wanted to share his views.
Though I've liked some of Sayles' movies, Return of the Secaucus Seven especially, I found Amigo, unfortunately, disappointing. It doesn't come together well as drama, as a story. It seems wooden, mechanical. I also thought it was a bit hard on the ugly American, though not by much. I did disagree with Sayles when he dismissed TR for his view that it would take 100 years to civilize the Filipinos. TR was actually ahead of most Americans of his day in overcoming the racism that had infected the Western world and was then reaching a peak. And TR's prediction wasn't entirely unfair, as it was nearly a century before the Filipinos got a real chance to shape their own destiny after getting rid of Marcos. I think a good case can be made that the U.S. accelerated more than it retarded that trajectory, even with the faults of our occupation.
When one post-film questioner said he thought the Americans were portrayed unjustifiably and unnecessarily negatively, Sayles calmly defended his presentation but the rest of the Trinity audience, mostly people over 40, groaned in displeasure with the questioner's political incorrectness. So much for academic freedom.
I like to go up to movie directors after such post-film discussions to ask a question or two. Quite a few others were gathered around him, so I waited until everyone else had moved on. It was getting late and Sayles was making his way to leave but he was entirely gracious when I asked him whether he had acted in movies other than his own. He seemed happy to have the question and said something like, "Oh yes, from time to time, when there's something." And he volunteered that he usually played a bad guy, a brute or dumb in his own films. I forget his words, something like "a cop," I think he said. That made me recall his role in his own film, Brother from Another Planet. He also said he doesn't like to play characters "with an arc" when he's directing, because it becomes difficult to direct and follow the arc at the same time. So the cop roles and the like are okay in his own films. "So you're always looking around, interested in landing parts?" I asked, and he responded affirmatively, almost as if he was wondering if I had a part to offer him. I thanked him for coming to Hartford and took off. Phil Steele
A week later, quite a coincidence. I viewed Spike Lee's Malcolm X again (and liked it even better than I did when it came out). Trying to identify the actor playing the FBI surveillance agent who delivers the line, "Compared to King this guy's a monk," I came to IMDb, of course, and it turns out it's John Sayles! Sayles says the line to his co-FBI eavesdropper, whose laughing as he overhears the conversation of Malcolm X and his wife, is very likely unhistorical and over the top. But for the most part Lee has made a great movie.
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