Men with Guns
directed by John Sayles
(Sony, 1997)

More than anything in the world, Dr. Humberto Fuentes wants to leave a legacy. To that end, he's trained half-a-dozen or more young doctors to leave the city and work with the Indians in the mountains.

Now, on the eve of retirement, with his vacation looming, Fuentes (Federico Luppi) plans to drive the breadth of his Central American homeland to visit those young doctors one by one. What he discovers surprises no one but himself.

In many ways, John Sayles is what Orson Welles wanted to be. He writes, directs and acts in films of his own choosing -- but unlike Welles, he always gets the final cut.

To do that, he raises money for "his" films by writing and rewriting other people's -- everything from Piranha and The Howling to Clan of the Cave Bear and Apollo 13.

Consequently, Sayles is a filmmaker who has much to say, but rarely repeats himself. In Men with Guns, Sayles not only has something to say, he says it in Spanish and an Indian dialect. Only the occasional American tourist speaks English.

The result is an offbeat film, a kind of Heart of Darkness meets The Ox Bow Incident, a subtitled meditation on the idealism vs. realpolitik, on the sins of omission and the sins of commission.

At the beginning of his journey, Fuentes is convinced that this U.S.-sponsored, government-backed program to send doctors into the bush was a good idea. But as he travels from village to village, the same story repeats itself: men with guns -- government soldiers or the guerrillas trying to displace them -- have taken the doctors away. Only one escaped, and what he's doing now humiliates Fuentes to the core of his being.

Along the way, Fuentes meets a starving young man (Dan Rivera Gonzalez) who's spurned by his village because he once worked for the soldiers, a young woman refugee (Tania Cruz) driven to silence and near-suicide following her rape by some soldiers, a priest (Damian Alcazar) who lost the call when he ran away instead of facing summary execution and an army deserter (Damian Delgado) who takes them all hostage.

As they check out the villages, all of which have been burned to the ground or scared into silence by men with guns, Fuentes begins to believe less and less in government-backed programs and more and more in a mythical village at the end of the line -- Cercade del Cielo, a refugee camp created by the refugees, so high in the mountains that neither the government nor the guerrillas can find it.

As in The Secret of Roan Inish, Sayles unfolds his tale slowly. At times it seems to meander; but sometimes it stuns, often it surprises, and in the end, it's drawn to the powerful message that lies waiting for the travelers in Cercade del Cielo.

Ultimately, Men with Guns is ambiguous about Dr. Fuentes: has he left a legacy or hasn't he? But it's clear about Sayles: he has.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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