A complex political statement, Amigo is epic in scale but trades the schmaltz of the traditional war film for a more resolute treatment of subject. The themes, characters and plotlines are hefty and resonant, and writer/director John Sayles treats each with sensitivity. Sayles is known for compassionately portraying his characters, and here they're pawns in a war they did nothing to start. Sayles layers the conflicts to examine the contrast between enemies and friends, and his exploration of the effects of governmental, local and insurgent interests is fascinating. He clearly feels heroism and villainy co-exist organically, even within the same being. Set during the U.S. occupation of the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century (a.k.a. the Philippine-American War), Indie giant Sayles mixes his favorite themes into an elaborate cocktail as delicate as it is bitter. With no great star draws, Sayles' own reputation should provide decent box office returns.
Sayles perfectly captures the rustic charm of a feudal village. Rafael (Joel Torre) functions as the community's autocrat, a benevolent taskmaster who merely reaps the rewards from the toil of others. He takes great pride in his position even while the villagers don't necessarily take great pains to hide their resentment. They spend their days immersed in the rice patties while he struts and preens. Rafael occasionally redeems himself by meting out justice in a manner that respects all parties involved and maintains the gentle calm of village life. Though fraught with tiny discomforts, all involved seem amiable; characters engaged in an ancient albeit slightly comic tangle.
Foreign invaders in the form of musket-toting U.S. soldiers burst into this oddly idyllic setting. The clash of cultures is immediate and electric. Yes, the racism is rampant, but subtle bonds also become apparent. Individuals in this troupe, from the commander down to the lowest ranked soldier, find that their objectives in the town are not so cut and dry. The invaders are also victims of circumstance: each individual has a commander to whom he must answer, and a conscience that often contradicts that commander. No one may freely indulge in his conscience.
Rebel forces surround the township, further complicating the situation. Rafael's brother leads these guerrillas and adds another layer of danger as the fragile peace established with the Americans is teetering.
Rafael is ultimately defeated (despite his pride) and forced into a bizarre act of redemption. A series of missteps leads to a shattering conclusion that makes restoration unattainable. No one wins. Sympathetic characters, decent folks really, got caught on opposite sides, overwhelmed by the worst of circumstances, and no one was the better for it. Sayles' sting is as sharp as ever, reminding us of the hapless nature of existence, one where compassion is not always an option and never enough.
Distributor: Variance Films
Cast: Joel Torre, Chris Cooper, Ronnie Lazaro, Yul Vazquez, Garret Dillahunt
Director/Screenwriter: John Sayles
Producers: Maggie Renzi
Genre: Historical Drama
Rating: R for some violence and language
Running Time: 128 min.
Release Date: August 19 ltd.