Amigo (2010): John Sayles’s Tale of Indigenous Culture

“Amigo,” which world premiered at the 2010 Toronto Film festival (Special presentation), will be released in August, 2011.

“We’re screwed from both sides,” a Filipino villager says with both disgust and equanimity in John Sayles’ trenchant historical new movie “Amigo.“

A preeminent independent American filmmaker of the past three decades, Sayles looks at the private anguish and moral difficulty of a smaller indigenous culture caught in the vicious crossfire of larger “civilizations.”

Captured with his typical felicity for character, mood and historical breadth, Sayles stages his new work against the American armed forces occupation of the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century. “Amigo” is one of his-large scale ensemble pieces, such as “City of Hope,“ synthesized with the impact of the past on the present, such as “Lone Star.” Sayles originated the material as a novel, but while conducting research, he became captivated by the story’s cinematic potential.

A typically freewheeling work from Sayles, “Amigo” is an original work that wields his fascination with personalities and history to a rambling and chaotic exploration of caste, class and color. The novelistic origins of the project are still evident on the screen, most clearly in the free flow of dialects and languages. The movie moves, not always confidently, between English, Spanish and Tagalog.

Sayles’ new film pivots on the elemental conflict of indigenous people, caught between the political and military imperatives of an occupying force and a guerilla revolution.

As the opening Spanish-language voice over pointedly alludes, the American conquest of the Philippines (1898-1901) expanded out of the American military campaign against Spanish interests in Cuba.

Sayles sets his story in 1900, after military operations between the two nations largely subsided following the Paris Treaty. The Americans established a favorable government in power, an event that helped inflame a nascent insurgency led by the revolutionary Emilio Aguinaldo in the countryside.

The title of “Amigo,” which dramatizes the conflict, refers to Rafael Dacanay (Joel Torre), and the patronizing nickname members of an American Army unit accord the local village leader, the so-called head-man. The spoils of the war have come home with a vengeance. His son has disobeyed him and fled for the countryside, presumably to join a band of insurrectionists, led by his estranged brother Simón (Ronnie Lazaro).

One of the final remnants of the Spanish presence is the priest, or friar, Padre Hidalgo (Yul Vazquez), who was imprisoned by the guerillas but with the arrival of the Army unit, he is set free. The movie plays off the cruel irony of the Americans now tasked with “saving,” or “protecting” the local garrison from the bandit revolutionaries that stage hit-and-run attacks before repatriating into the rain-soaked forests and interior of the rice-growing area.

Rafael must play both sides against the middle. The power and strength of the film emerges through the dense, multi-threaded story and the multiplicity of voices that Sayles weaves into a curious and involving arabesque. The American soldiers, for instance, are neither mercenaries nor saints; some of them are wizened old hands from Indian pacification programs in the West, while others are callow and dangerously out of depth cavalry and infantryman.

The occupying force is Lieutenant Ike Compton (Garrett Dillahunt), a compassionate, though steely, voice of reason trying to maneuver around the more craven, animalistic directions of his superior officer, Col. Hardacre (Sayles regular Chris Cooper). “I have to live with these people,” Compton says. “No, Lieutenant, you have to make war on these people,” the colonel responds.

Like Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator” (which also premiered at the Toronto Film Fest) it is possible to read into this film as an allegory, a thinly veiled commentary on Iraq. Most historians agree that anti-insurgency Philippine campaign was founded on a belief of extreme “persuasion,” and was brutal and explicit anti-agrarian. And those policies would influence the strategic hamlet theories in Vietnam and eventually in Iraq.

The narrative contains some awkward parts, such as Cooper’s unfortunate line about “hearts and minds,” or a wholly unbelievable love affair that develops between a prized local girl and an American soldier.

That said, “Amigo” rarely feels compromised, much less conventional. Sayles uses humor and the action of the soldiers, especially their near endless capacity for getting drunk or acquiring the worst kind of sexually transmitted diseases, to create a more a multifaceted group portrait. It’s exactly that conflict between the male group and the individual priority that deepens and fleshes out the drama.

Working in digital video for the first time, Sayles finds a liquid style that frees him up and enables him to do what he does best, create fully inhabitable individuals. When the action does come, it is nasty, fierce and unpleasant.

“Amigo” has none of the romantic revolutionary appeal of war or death. It is bloody and unremitting. By the ironic coda, nobody escapes it.