Centering on the discrepancy between the official story, as it is constructed and enforced by power elites in totalitarian regimes, and the personal responsibility of individual citizens to search for the truth, John Sayles' new movie, Men With Guns, is a logical follow-up to Lone Star, which dealt with similar issues. Structurally and stylistically, however, the two movies are quite different, with Men With Guns far less complex, less multi-layered and less technically accomplished than the 1996 film, which is Sayles' best–and most popular–work to date. Sony Classics faces a tough challenge in marketing a film that is not only Spanish-language and lacks recognizable names in its cast, but is also static, garrulous and devoid of visual distinction.
Like Sayles' The Secret of Roan Inish, Men With Guns is framed as a mythic tale, one in which an old native woman (Iguandili Lopez) tells her young daughter (Nandi Luna Ramirez) the story of an idealistic doctor from the Big City. And similarly to Lone Star, the format of the new film is that of a personal investigation, here conducted by an aging doctor searching for the students he had trained as doctors. Unfortunately, the new yarn lacks the visual magic of The Secret and the narrative momentum of Lone Star.
Inspired by the character of Dr. Arrau (who appeared in Francisco Goldman's novel, “The Long Night of White Chickens”), central figure is Humberto Fuentes (Federico Luppi), a wealthy, successful doctor whose wife had recently died. He is a proud, dignified professional, who considers the greatest achievement of his life–his “legacy” as he says–his participation in an international health program that trained doctors to serve impoverished villages in the mountains. Close to retirement, Fuentes decides to take a trip and visit his former students, against the advice of his children and his most prominent patient, an army general (Rafael De Quevedo). Hence begins a physical journey that gradually becomes an intensely political, emotional and moral odyssey.
A brief encounter in the marketplace with Bravo (Roverto Sosa), his best student, leads Fuentes to a squalid slum in the outskirts, where Bravo operates a “private pharmacy.” Refusing to answer the question, why isn't he working in the countryside, Bravo sends his old mentor to Cienfuegos, another of his students, who reportedly “knows the whole story.” But upon reaching Cienfuegos's village, the villagers are afraid to talk–until a blind woman informs Fuentes that his student was killed by the “men with guns.”
The local police officer dismisses the rumors, claiming that there are no guerrillas in the area and urging the doctor to return to the city. This, of course, makes Fuentes all the more committed to his cause. Along the way, he befriends a young boy, Conejo (Dan Rivera Gonzales), a product of rape who was abandoned by his mother. Conejo knows the area well and, functioning as a guide, he takes Fuentes to a deserted school, the site of torture and violence where another one of his students was murdered.
Unfolding as a road movie, each stop represents a crucial phase in the doctor's political awakening. The tale gets richer and more interesting when Fuentes and Conejo are joined by Domingo (Damian Delgado), an army deserter with no home or destination, and Padre Portillo (Damian Alcazar), a defrocked priest. Still tormented by their past, Both Domingo and Portillo recount their traumatic experiences through brief flashbacks. Domingo is haunted by memories of stabbing a prisoner to death under pressure from his peers, as part of his initiation into the group.
Though Lone Star represents a height in Sayles' oeuvre, it still suffered from schematic didactism–lessons of Texas's bloody history were not only dramatized, they were also used as lectures in schools and sermons to the audience. Wearing Sayles's liberal-humanitarian doctrine on its sleeves, Men With Guns is also diagrammatic.
Mandy Patinkin and Kathryn Grody play one-dimensional characters–the naive American tourists–used mostly for comic relief. Moreover, Sayles' decision not to ground the story in any particular historical context makes the movie a bit vague and abstract. The generic title suggests that the horrific tale can take place in any authoritarian society, be it Guatemala, Argentina, Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union.
The journey taken by the doctor is metaphoric, underlining the personal responsibility of each citizen to be alert and search for knowledge. In this respect, the film's message is similar to that of the Oscar-winning Argentinean The Official Story, which also revolved around a bourgeois couple blind to the atrocities around them.
Sayles goes further and makes an important distinction between naive innocence and willful ignorance. Fuentes is blind to what's happening around him not only because he is manipulated and lied to by an oppressive minority, but also because it's convenient not to know; his comfortable life precluded the perception of any social or political ills.
Despite logical construction, technically, Men With Gun leaves much to be desired. After making substantial progress as a filmmaker in the 1990s, visually speaking, the film is a throwback to Sayles of the 1980s: the cinematography is modestly functional and the tempo pedestrian. Sayles takes pride in editing his own movies, but he could use the help of a savvy editor to bring snap to the storytelling. Men With Guns is never boring, but it plods along without benefiting from its dramatic format of a murder investigation. A 15-minute trim of the running time will enhance the film's impact without damaging its integrity or coherence.