Men With Guns
Screenplay : John Sayles
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Federico Luppi (Dr. Fuentes), Damián Delgado (Domingo, the Soldier), Dan Rivera González (Conejo, the Boy), Tania Cruz (Graciela, the Mute Girl), Damián Alcázar (Padre Portillo, the Priest), Mandy Patinkin (Andrew), Kathryn Grody (Harriet), Iguandili López (Mother), Nandi Luna Ramírez (Daughter), Rafael de Quevedo (General)
John Sayles' "Men With Guns" is about what happens to a society when brute force and constant threat of violence are the only means of gaining and maintaining power.
The film takes place in an unnamed Central American country, where the men with guns are the rulers. Most of the country is divided into tiny segments -- some are controlled by guerrillas with guns, some are controlled by Army soldiers with guns, and all the spaces in-between are controlled by thieves, bandits, and terrorists. All people not fitting one of those descriptions are defined only by their powerlessness.
However, like so many Central American countries, this one also features modernity. There is an unnamed capital city that bears all the hallmarks of contemporary civilization: skyscrapers, hospitals, televisions, highways, etc. But, it might as well be in another country because those who live in the comforts of the city have either decided to ignore the violence ravaging the rest of the land, or else they are simply ignorant of it.
The film's main character, Dr. Fuentes (Federico Luppi) falls into the latter category. One of his patients, an Army general, describes him as the most educated man he has ever met, and also the most naive. Fuentes is a true liberal, a caring man who thinks he can cure the ills of his country by fighting bacteria and ignorance among the indigenous Indians. With government assistance, he has trained a large group of eager young medical students and sent them into the rainforest to cure and educate. This program was to be his legacy, and he repeats over and over that it was a good idea.
However, when he ventures into that same rainforest to visit his protégés, he finds that things have not turned out as he has envisioned. As he travels deeper into the forest, going from village to village, the story is always the same: the doctors were all killed by either the guerrillas or the Army soldiers, usually for helping the other. When Dr. Fuentes asks a village woman why the Army killed one of the doctors, she replies simply, "Because they had guns, and we didn't." Rational science and all its attempts to cure have been wiped out by the men with guns, because others' sickness and ignorance helps them maintain power.
Dr. Fuentes picks up several companions during his journey, all of whom are characterized by their loss. First, there is a young boy named Conejo (Dan Rivera González), who has neither a mother nor a father. Next, Fuentes crosses paths with a thief named Domingo (Damián Delgado), who deserted the Army because he was tired of being jeered into committing murderous atrocities. Through his ordeal in the Army, Domingo has lost most of his self-respect, and defines himself only by his pistol.
Along the way, the group also picks up Padre Portillo (Damián Alcázar), a priest who has lost his faith. As Domingo is running from the Army, so is Portillo -- he has been labeled a guerrilla sympathizer, and ran away from the village in which he was preaching. Last, the group takes on a mute girl named Graciela (Tania Cruz), who hasn't spoken since she was raped two years earlier, her innocence and even her will to live forcefully taken from her.
Sayles two major strengths as a director -- characters and setting -- are abundantly evident in "Men With Guns." (Like many of his films, Sayles might have tightened this one somewhat in the editing room, but a longer-than-necessary running time is a sin almost always committed when the director is also the editor.) He creates fascinating, complex characters, especially Dr. Fuentes and Domingo. Their uneasy relationship is also somewhat humorous in context of the film's overarching theme of violence as power -- Domingo's attempts to control Fuentes with his revolver are constantly undermined by Fuentes' belief that the revolver is unloaded (at first it is, but later is isn't).
The setting is also as thick with detail as the rainforest itself. Sayles knows how to bring a location to life, whether it be an early twentieth-century coal mining town in "Matewan" (1987) or a contemporary Texas/Mexico bordertown in "Lone Star" (1996). Sayles is not a particularly inventive director -- he likes to let his actors do most of the work -- but he and cinematographer Slavomir Idziak ("Gattaca") successfully evoke both the beauty and the danger of the Central American terrain.
Sayles also maintains a strong sense of authenticity by filming everything on location in Mexico, using all Latin American actors, and having all the dialogue spoken in either Spanish or native Indian dialects. The one exception is a couple of bumbling American tourists who work not only as comic relief, but as evidence of just how clueless the United States is about what is going on a few hundred miles south of the Texas border.
It would not be a stretch to say that "Men With Guns" is a depressing film. In fact, the two feelings it evokes most are hopelessness and failure. In addition to loss, the main characters are also failures at something, whether that be Dr. Fuentes failure to change anything through medicine, or Padre Portillo's inability to stand up and be the martyr he always dreamed of being. Nevertheless, it is bleak material Sayles has chosen, and he deals with it accordingly. The last shot of the film does offer a hint of hope, even in a world where, as one character puts it, "Nobody refuses the men with guns."
©1998 James Kendrick