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Tucson Weekly Bungle in the Jungle

Sayles' "Men With Guns" is a powerful film despite lackluster photography.

By Stacey Richter

APRIL 27, 1998:  JOHN SAYLES IS known for making left-leaning, meandering films that come about as close to being novels as movies can get. They focus on character development, dialogue, and storytelling, and leave things dangling on the visual side. In general, I've found Sayles' work to be pedantic and smug. There's a feeling that he's preaching liberal causes to a converted audience, and nothing's more deadly for art than lobbying for a cause. But in his best films, Sayles transcends the black-and-white dogmatism of politics and lets his stories gather meaning naturally--and this happens in his latest, Men With Guns.

It's the story of Dr. Fuentes (Federico Luppi), a physician from an unspecified country in Central America who has reached a crossroads in life. His wife has died, and he's unsatisfied with treating the hemorrhoids and vague pains of his patients. He decides to take a trip to the mountains to find a group of young doctors he'd trained several years earlier to treat peasants in remote mountain villages. Dr. Fuentes is an unlikely hero: An elegant, white-haired man, perhaps in his sixties, with a bit of paunch. He leaves his comfortable, middle-class life in the city fearlessly, mainly because he has no idea what's really going on in the mountains.

What he finds there are the remnants of an agrarian guerrilla uprising, Chiapas-style. As Dr. Fuentes travels from village to village, looking for his former students, he finds instead taciturn villagers, burned settlements, and evidence of atrocities, perpetrated by either the army or by the guerrillas: Whatever, they are simply men with guns. To the peaceful mountain farmers, it doesn't matter which ideology they hold, because for them, the results are the same.

By telling the story from the point of view of the doctor and the peasants he befriends, Sayles manages to portray politically charged themes without copping an attitude. In fact, he imbues Dr. Fuentes with an interesting dose of ambiguity. We can't tell, for instance, if the guerrillas are fighting for a worthy cause or not, because the doctor himself doesn't have any perspective on this. The most tangible aspect of the war, to him, is the suffering it causes.

The story unfolds with a curious journey-style plot that resembles a fairy tale or a musical more than a conventional narrative. The doctor travels from village to village, hoping to find his former students. One by one, he discovers that they are either missing or dead. And along the way, he picks up a motley bunch of traveling companions who add to his knowledge of the region.

As the film progresses, the traveling companions he acquires become ever more fantastic, as if they'd sprung from the Brother's Grimm. First there's an orphaned boy and a soldier who has deserted. Then there's a defrocked priest who calls himself "The Ghost," and Graciella the Mute Girl. Even the jungle becomes more enchanted and strange as the Doctor voyages on. Eventually it becomes clear that this really isn't a film about a particular place or time. It's simply a story about the struggle for power.

This fairy-tale, universal quality to Men With Guns saves it from being pedantic while still allowing Sayles to take a critical stance--surely no easy feat. Sayles not only comments on the brutality of war, he also comments on the stupidity of Hollywood--by making Men With Guns in Spanish. If this had been a Hollywood movie, the action could have been set in Central America, but the actors would have spoke lightly accented English. Sayles just puts the whole thing in Spanish (with English subtitles), an interesting move for an American director. There are a couple of Americans, but they stay in the background, and most of the main characters are Indians. If Hollywood had made this movie, it would have been about a couple of white guys crawling around the jungle, talking to the occasional Indian, who'd then take a spear in the chest and be seen no more.

For all the thought and subtly Sayles put into this movie, it's a shame that it looks so drab. Despite the lush, jungle settings, the quaint villagers etc., this movie looks like it was shot for TV in the mid-1970s. Sayles simply lacks a sharp visual sense, and his cinematographer, Slavomir Idziak, seems unable to help much. It's a tribute to Sayles' storytelling ability that Men With Guns is still a powerful movie, despite its lack of powerful images.

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