Writer-director John Sayles, who seems incapable of making an uninteresting film, has come up with perhaps his most original scenario yet, one that combines the harsh historical acuity of such past efforts as Matewan (1987) and Eight Men Out (1988) with the shimmering tall-tale mood of his The Secret of Roan Inish (1994).
The film takes place in an unspecified Latin American country, one which suffers from a common ailment of developing regions: an ongoing war between a ruthless military government and equally ruthless guerrilla insurgents, with a large peasant population caught in between. To those poor folk, there is no distinction between the two sides, which both send "men with guns" to periodically wreak havoc and then move on.
Sayles' story, which centers around one distinguished citizen of this country, a certain Dr. Fuentes (Federico Luppi), is structured as a series of encounters as Fuentes undertakes a painful journey of discovery. Most memorable of these are a soldier (Damian Delgado), who first seems to be a brutal thug but slowly reveals his humanity, and a priest (an excellent performance by Damian Alcazar in a difficult role), whose faith has failed him during a moment of crisis and who now wanders the countryside in search of meaningful punishment, if not redemption.
Sayles has chosen to have his characters speak their native languages (subtitled throughout), which not only heightens the film's feeling of vérité but emphasizes the cultural gap between the Spanish-speaking Fuentes and the various indigenous people he meets.
The minor flaws of the film are that its deliberate and thoughtful pacing becomes at times a bit sluggish, especially during the opening sequences, and that the only Americans present (Mandy Patinkin and Kathryn Grody) come close to stereotype -- though one only notices that because Sayles' other characters are so finely drawn. But Luppi is an extremely sympathetic presence as a man well past his prime who's just beginning to realize how deluded he's been; and despite an occasional lull, we watch with fascination as he struggles his way through hell and towards hope.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.