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Amigo | Review

John Sayles takes on the Philippine-American War with tough compassion for both sides.

With the sure hands of a master bricklayer, veteran American independent writer-director John Sayles (‘Eight Men Out,’ ‘Lone Star’) ably crafts Amigo, the story of a small village occupied in 1900 by American forces in the middle of the messy Philippine-American War (according to Sayles, only one previous American film from the 1930’s has ever attempted to portray the conflict). Socially conscious but never pedantic, and filled with authentic historical detail, Sayles’ 17th feature evenly orchestrates multiple points-of-view without imposing the director’s own, except for his signature brand of principled compassion. This attitude is no better expressed in ‘Amigo’ then when one character asks with sincere bewilderment, “How can both sides be right?”

At the center of the story is Rafael (an engaging Joel Torre), the middle-aged “head” (aka, mayor) of San Isidro, who is pulled between loyalty to his brother, the leader of the Filipino guerillas hiding in the jungle, and his obligation to the safety and well-being of the village, which requires deference to, and complicity with, the American soldiers, led by well-meaning orders-taker Lt. Compton (a solid non-villain turn from Garret Dillahunt).

Unlike with conventional scriptwriting formula (now just as common in so-called “independents” as in Hollywood movies, and maybe more so), characters aren’t neatly torn between the easy choice and what they know is right. Instead, the system of occupation that has been imposed upon them — occupiers and occupied alike — affords no pat solutions. Every choice is both an affirmation and a betrayal, every action tinged with equal parts cowardice and courage.

Apart from it all stands the cynical Spanish friar (played by Yul Vazquez, who at first seems diffident in the role, but whose restraint grows on you), who at best acts only from the muscle memory of principle. In a different Sayles movie, the friar’s dramatic function would be served by the character of a hard-bitten journalist: a resentful observer with an agenda, who schemes not so much out of self interest but as a scornful proof of others’ malleability.

But Sayles isn’t taking cheap shots at a religious figure or turning him into an effigy for the audience to comfortably mock. He recognizes the fundamental spiritual impulses even in the unlikeliest of characters, as with one of whom it’s said, “he wanted to be archbishop of Manila, now he’s a bandit in the mountains.”

Sayles directorial craft is rarely more than functional. One is never immersed in the jungle or completely lost in the swoon of emotion or first-person experience. Sayles wants you awake; it’s not a dream, it’s a conversation. As with all good conversation, dialogue is the key, and it’s Sayles’ forte: tough, colloquial, randy, smart, smart-ass. He swings naturally from the good-naturedly profane to the bluntly poetic.

He also has a knack for how opposing cultures use metaphor to translate themselves, as when the telegraph machine is described to a peasant as carrying words through the wire “like fallen leaves on the river.” Technology is both wondered at, and put in its place. Another great moment: A young American soldier (promising young actor Dane DeHaan is trying, maybe a little too hard) delivers a flustered monologue to an uncomprehending Filipino girl he is smitten with, finally capping his weary, haunted, horny helplessness with, “Most days I wish I’d stayed in Lubbock.”

As the crusty, ruthless American Col. Hardacre, Chris Cooper is one of the few actors to give his role here a true lived-in quality. Torre, Ronnie Lazaro as the rebel leader, Dillahunt, and the rest of the cast all give professional, hit-all-the-notes performances, though without ever really losing themselves. Likewise the cinematography is sometimes unnaturally over-lit, while even scenes shot on location have a clean, studio-set quality.

But Sayles doesn’t mind if you’re standing outside the story a little, and at times he subtly encourages it, as when one of the American soldiers lets slip the word “like” according to today’s common usage as an empty conversational stopgap. Even more conspicuous is the final freeze frame, awkward and old-fashioned. Film industry types trained to obey the slick routines of current-day film grammar, along with viewers anaesthetized by stylistic sheen, will alike probably wince at this klutzy closing to the movie. But it’s a mistake to think that Sayles is failing to meet a standard of conduct he couldn’t care less about. The audience he makes movies for is not interested in or even aware of technical tactics or stylistic fads; he instead addresses an audience that is responsive to ideas, sensitive to the story behind the surface and to the multiplicity of voices Sayles gives to people who would ordinarily have no outlet.

This is the audience Sayles is addressing — but does it exist in 2011 as anything more than a half-remembered ghost?

Rating 3.5 stars

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Ryan Brown is a filmmaker and freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY. He has an MFA in Media Arts from City College, CUNY. His short films GATE OF HEAVEN and DAUGHTER OF HOPE can be viewed here: With Antonio Tibaldi, he co-wrote the screenplay 'The Oldest Man Alive,' which was selected for the "Emerging Narrative" section of IFP's 2012 Independent Film Week. Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Almodóvar (Live Flesh), Assayas (Cold Water), Bellochio (Fists in the Pocket), Breillat (Fat Girl), Coen Bros. (Burn After Reading), Demme (Something Wild), Denis (Friday Night), Herzog (The Wild Blue Yonder), Leigh (Another Year), Skolimowski (Four Nights with Anna), Zulawski (She-Shaman)

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