Men With Guns
Director: John Sayles. Cast: Federico Luppi, Damián Delgado, Dan Rivera González, Damián Alcázar, Tania Cruz, Mandy Patinkin, Kathryn Grody, Nandi Luna Ramírez, Iguandili Lopez. Screenplay: John Sayles.

Maddening at times but engrossing at others, John Sayles' latest effort is a typically cerebral but uncharacteristically forced story about a Latin American doctor (Federico Luppi) who, with a gradually acquired cohort of strangers, journeys deep into the jungle of his country looking for onetime students now believed to have been killed. At a few spots during the film, the doctor remembers teaching these students in brief, black-and-white flashbacks that, even on that formal level, suggest that the past is a distant, altogether distinct entity from the present.

All the same, the doctor's mission in the jungle clearly suggests that he believes in the power of reclaiming the past, of acknowledging that long-ago events or nearly-forgotten people continue to affect the transpirings of the present. The whole film remains fascinated throughout with the relations between the past and the present. An ex-priest contemplates whether or not he can still hear a confession, and what power he could possibly extend to the confessor were he to listen at all. A woman, once raped by terrorist soldiers, no longer speaks to anyone around her; the gesture in some ways defies any outside attempt to "know" or appropriate her private tragedy, but she also assigns through her behavior the fullest reference-point of her persona on a past act perpetrated against that, finally, the ultimate or even the intended triumph of her attackers?

A former militia soldier named Domingo, played by Damián Delgado in the film's most compelling performance, defines himself through his past acts and former status in the militia, until his responsibilities to the present and future are explicitly remarked to him. Sayles even includes real-life husband and wife Mandy Patinkin and Kathryn Grody as crass, ruin-seeking American tourists; they demonstrate historical "retrieval" at its most vulgar extreme, but can we dismiss their activities as only insipid, or as pure recreation?

Sayles' fierce intelligence, vibrantly present in all his films, is equally hard to miss in this one. His care for the nuances of how different groups interact (natives and tourists, rabble-rousers and pacifists, the elderly and the young) informs even the creakier dialogues, and his constant, multi-dimensional interrogation of his own title concepts—who are the men with guns, why do they have them, and what does it mean to own or not to own one—is enough to sustain a film that occasionally relies too heavily or obviously on cumbersome symbols and creaky mysticalisms. Still, the large, unknown cast is consistently involving, and Sayles-the-writer is always worth our money even when Sayles the director fences, as he does here, with convention and dogmatics. Let's hope he comes back next time with all his pistols firing. B

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Foreign-Language Film

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