MEN WITH GUNS (HOMBRES ARMADOS)

R
Reviews

There is the sin of not knowing, of not taking personal responsibility; we indict people for it. Whether it's the ordinary German claiming to have no knowledge of the camps during World War II, or the grieving mother who says she didn't know her child was being beaten, when people proclaim their ignorance, we shake our heads and ask, 'How could they not know?' John Sayles would say they chose not to know. In Men With Guns (Hombres Armados), the filmmaker illustrates how ignorance can become another form of violence. Sayles' protagonist, Dr. Fuentes (Federico Luppi of Cronos), is a wealthy Latino doctor who believes his legacy lies in the clinics he established in remote villages; he sent his pupils to them, in an unnamed Central American country, to minister to the poor. When the army reached those villages, they accused the doctors and priests, along with the villagers, of being revolutionaries, and they killed everyone to ensure there would be no one left to tell stories. For Dr. Fuentes, the army's activities were rumors, and his students were little more than an extension of himself, the inheritors of his legacy.

With this film, Sayles reminds us that, despite the 1996 peace accord in Guatemala and the relative stability of Honduras and Mexico, Nicaragua and El Salvador, for many the struggle for freedom, and in some cases racial equality, continues because the men with guns, la mala gente as the locals call them-and the atrocities they committed-have not been forgotten. As Men With Guns opens, Dr. Fuentes is planning to visit his students, and in the haunting road movie that follows, he drives through the countryside only to be confronted with what his ignorance has wrought. Through his archetypal journey-it becomes obvious that the doctor is close to death-we learn about the army's actions. Although Sayles' protagonist is a Latino unaware of the misery in his own country, the film is an indictment of everyone who proclaims their ignorance in the face of great injustice. The movie doesn't take a political position, but Sayles isn't letting anyone off the hook, not even the American tourists in this film who traipse through Mayan ruins more aware of pre-Columbian history, ironically, than of the present-day suffering of indigenous people, the descendants of the Mayan pyramid builders. We're all responsible if we've chosen to remain ignorant.

Not unlike Dante in his journey to awareness, the doctor encounters injured innocents as well as the sinful; his Virgil is a young boy, Conejo (Dan Rivera González), who was a mascot for the soldiers who occupied his village. For Conejo, there is no sin, only human needs to be satisfied. Domingo (Damián Delgado), another of the doctor's traveling companions, is a former soldier whose spirit is nearly broken by the memory of his misdeeds. Portillo (Damián Alcázar), a priest who abandoned his village when he was asked to give his life for the sake of it, is haunted by the memory of its burning.

All of these men, and Graciela, mute since being raped by soldiers, slowly bring Dr. Fuentes to the realization that his legacy lies in the ashes of those villages in which his students perished. At the end of the film, Dr. Fuentes dies in Cerca del Cielo (Close to Heaven), a mountain hideout the army hasn't discovered. There, Graciela convinces Domingo, who was a medic in the army, to minister to a badly wounded woman, and Dr. Fuentes' legacy is reborn, this time in the hands of a man whose memories will never allow him to turn away, or to be unaware.

The cast, many of whom are first-time actors, speak in their native tongues-in Spanish and in indigenous languages-so the film is subtitled. Luppi's performance is good, but Delgado and Rivera González as the soldier and the boy, as well as Tania Cruz as Graciela, are the performers you remember. Sayles' crew included the gifted Polish cinematographer Slawomir Idziak (Gattaca), whose previous work includes John Duigan's The Journey of August King and Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blue. Sayles' editing sometimes slows up the film-the black-and-white flashbacks of Dr. Fuentes' students are unnecessary-but his vision remains clearly articulated at every level, whether you approach the film in terms of its narrative structure, its philosophical foundation, or its characterizations.

Sayles' message is apparent: Despite evidence to the contrary, Western culture continues to perceive itself as civilized. Until, like the priest, we are confronted with true nobility of spirit, we never question our version of history. Portillo recounts the terrifying and haunting act of four men who kill themselves as they have been asked to by the army, in order to save their village. The villagers know there are no revolutionaries in their midst, only poor farmers. But without the land, who would they be? What would become of their children? And, Sayles asks, without an enlightened view of history, who will we become?

--Maria Garcia