Guns N' Poses

Lovers of American movies used to joke that foreign films wouldn't seem so good if you saw them without subtitles. John Sayles's new movie Men with Guns plays better than his previous films because it does have subtitles. Bald dialogue always sounds better in Spanish or in Indian dialects.

Set in an unnamed Latin American country (and filmed in Mexico), the movie has an exotic distance that almost takes the edge off its blunt didacticism. Its South American-primitive veneer and stunning blend of musical styles, the latter courtesy of composer Mason Daring, can distract you from the determined way writer-director Sayles builds this parable of colonial history. The film's moral is that white culture is evil and virulent -- so evil that it leaves nothing but scorched earth behind it, so virulent that it turns Indians white (all they have to do is put on a military uniform). While bourgeois Spanish-speaking city-dwellers lead cosmopolitan lives, wealthy landowners in the hinterlands uproot natives and force them into ruinous cash-crop agriculture -- or they simply get the army to murder them. The only way for Indians to escape the tragic forces of capitalism and imperialism is to ascend to the mountaintop.

In the view of American independent-film fanatics, Sayles has already been to the mountaintop. For twenty years he's made movies outside the studio system, with stories that try to champion the dispossessed and sing the virtues of the unsung. Doing an indie film is, of course, not a negligible feat. In 1996 moviegoers turned Sayles's Lone Star into a huge art-house hit, though it was little more than a lib-rad guide to Tex-Mex mores with a cut-and-dried central mystery. But there can be a grinding fascination to seeing Sayles work out his ethnic and class view of society -- evident in both the South American agitprop of Men with Guns and in the 1991 urban-corruption noir City of Hope.

And yet Sayles's films usually bore me. He tends to make his leads monotonously naive and to approach plots (and subplots) like a cartographer instead of a raconteur, pinning every character to his or her place on the social-political map. I enjoyed the spontaneous comedy of 1980's Return of the Secaucus Seven and parts of 1984's The Brother from Another Planet, and his news hound's ear and eye for colorful talk and incident energized his short-lived 1990-91 network TV series Shannon's Deal. (An hourlong TV show suits his notions of character and storytelling.)

If his filmmaking had fire and poetry, it would elicit the mixture of despair and euphoria you get while watching the work of great political directors such as Gillo Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers, Burn!) or Francesco Rosi (The Moment of Truth). Unfortunately, even when Sayles dabbles in tricky flashback structures or magic realism, he's ploddingly melodramatic.

Men with Guns held me longer than many of his other films, and not just because of its colorful ambiance. Its hero has potential tragic stature: He's a doctor who trained medical students for service in remote villages. Now widowed and near the end of life, he wants to venture into the wild to see if his program has helped. With his long face and regal features, the Argentine actor Federico Luppi brings the role (based on a character adapted from Francisco Goldman's novel The Long Night of White Chickens) a rueful gallantry -- it's what the character needs to keep from becoming ridiculous. As he makes his journey, the doctor strives to believe in progress despite vivid evidence to the contrary. Natives flee from the sight of him; in an allegorical stroke, those who dare to speak to him identify themselves according to their crops -- as Corn People or Coffee People or Gum People. (If the price of coffee drops and the Coffee People can't make enough money to eat, they starve -- they grow only coffee.)

Each of the misfit fellow travelers the doctor meets along the way is a scholar of atrocity. A jaded, smart-mouthed urchin (Dan Rivera Gonzalez) takes him to a killing field and swings a human bone as if it were a baseball bat; a defrocked priest (Damian Alcazar) calls himself a ghost and admits he saved his own life at the expense of his flock; a runaway soldier (Damian Delgado) confesses the moral trauma of his army initiation -- the murder of a helpless man. (He also raped a helpless woman.) Nonetheless the doctor keeps hoping to find that his medical outreach program has done some good.

I kept hoping so too -- for the sake of the drama. Without the possibility of any good coming from the doctor's efforts, the movie begins to feel like a punishment: a gauntlet for the same urban liberals who will doubtless cheer the film. Both Sayles and Goldman say that the doctor was based in part on one of Goldman's relatives, an uncle who spearheaded a Guatemalan rural health care program whose medics were slaughtered by the government. Goldman, a friend of Sayles, says that his uncle's endeavor has thrived; he sees it as a "'real-life' reflection of the hint of redemption and hope at the end of Men with Guns." But the "hint of redemption and hope" in the film is actually wispy and corny, and no comfort at all to Sayles's doctor.

The filmmaker thinks he's condemning merely the doctor's ignorance. But the movie in effect condemns the doctor's race and class. In a framing device reeking of warmed-over magic realism, an Indian mother tells the doctor's story to her angelic daughter. As the mother explains why city people are different, Sayles fades from their vibrant female faces into the movie proper. The first thing we see is a Visible Man-like model of the brain and upper body standing in the doctor's office. To Sayles there's no magic or instinct left in contemporary Western civilization. With trademark subtlety he introduces us to his protagonist as he gives a rectal exam to an army general; this bloated jefe declares that Marxists spread stories of unrest to fill the common people's love for drama. If only Sayles could do that! He doesn't dramatize -- he demonstrates. And what the opening section demonstrates is the vacuity of the doctor's world. Everyone from his racist son-in-law to the aging women in his waiting room comes off as empty, silly, or malicious.

Once the doctor hits the road, the movie threatens to spring to life as a political variation on Ingmar Bergman's geriatric 1957 road movie Wild Strawberries. (I kept waiting for Sayles to tip his hand by introducing some Strawberry People.) But the story never ignites -- only Luppi's wounded patrician eyes provide a little bit of soul. Despite the film's parade of crippled consciences and a mystical overlay, only its melodramatic set pieces pack any potency. To Sayles's credit, he conveys the horrific sway that "men with guns" hold over pastoral communities. But his heavy hand shows again when the deserter buys three bullets for an empty gun and dubs them "the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost," or when the doctor then plays with the gun without realizing it's loaded.

Cinematographer Slawomir Idziak gives the film a distinctive tawny-and-dirty-green palette; the paths between palm trees sometimes register as nightmare alleys. Too bad Sayles's filmmaking instinct is deficient: He doesn't know how to make images lodge in our minds and tingle. He never ranges beyond the functional. He lacks the lyric impulse that might lend a menacing shimmer to a machete. And he tries and fails to conjure the emotional immediacy that would give a lift to the cast. When the urchin nonchalantly swings that bone, Sayles keeps the existential terror at one remove. The scene won't haunt me the way the Mexican bandits surrounding Bogart do in John Huston's 1948 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which moved across similar terrain. Sayles doesn't see poetry in reality, only hackneyed prose.

Despite the smart-alecky edge to some of the dialogue, Men with Guns has an implicit, brutal sanctimony. Sayles largely ignores any fruitful interactions between whites and Indians. The doctor proves to be so out of it that he's unworthy of exemplifying what Goldman calls "the dilemma of the conscious liberal" caught between political extremes. Indeed, the hero is almost as irrelevant as the picture's comic-relief tourists (Mandy Patinkin and Kathryn Grody): enlightened, educated Americans who end up looking ridiculous because they're not sufficiently politically engaged. The only ones Sayles gives a pass to are the remaining unspoiled Indians. He may be a man of humane concerns, but in Men with Guns his attitudes are strictly brown and white.

Men with Guns.
Directed and written by John Sayles. Starring Federico Luppi, Damian Delgado, Dan Rivera Gonzalez, and Damian Alcazar.

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