REVIEW: Allegory Alert! John Sayles' Amigo Riffs on American Imperialism

Movieline Score:

The first American voice that is heard in Amigo, John Sayles's ponderous cine-play set during the U.S. occupation of the Philippines at the turn of the 19th century, rips through the air with the brutal dissonance of an artillery shell. The torqued South Carolina accent of actor Brian Lee Franklin -- cursing out the country's "little monkeys" -- announces the arrival of an American squadron in the tiny Philippine "baryo" where they and Amigo remain for the next two hours. Along with an introductory crack about "hearts and minds" made by squad Lieutenant Compton (Garret Dillahunt), that private's twanging epithet puts the audience on Code Orange allegory alert.

What may not be readily familiar to viewers is the history at work behind Sayles's chosen moment -- when the Spanish-American war carried over to the Philippines, where American troops arrived to help end 300 years of Spanish rule, only to find themselves battling a Filipino insurgency. Rather than digging into a character-driven narrative and allowing the resonances to flow naturally from it, Sayles seemed to begin with a set of inferences to modern American imperialism and work backwards. The result is the double shrift of a thinly sketched background and a story that has trouble standing up on its own.

At the center of that story is the amigo of the title, a local named Rafael (Joel Torre). Rafael is first seen meting out a little village justice over a sweet potato dispute: Firm but fair, he's the undisputed "head man" in the small rice farming enclave. Less disposed to Rafael are the Spanish priest (Yul Vazquez) and soldiers being held prisoner in the village on the order of the Indio rebels. With the arrival of the Americans the Spaniards are freed, and only the padre decides to stay, mainly to make stagey observations about the civilizing force of religion and throw Christian shade on the heathens. As an uneasy group dynamic takes shape, so does the contrast between Rafael, a decent man who nevertheless may have been exploiting his farmers, the padre, who has a distinct lack of charity for a man of God, and Lt. Compton, the benevolent occupier who is at the mercy of martial law orders.

Though Sayles seems to be setting up a study of what it means to be moral during wartime, the theme is too complex to be developed through the film's series of studied, expository two-shot conversations. The padre is quickly reduced to a dogmatic cartoon with contempt for the "partly religious, partly profane" Filipinos, Compton's earnest democratic mandate is undermined by a burned-out general played by Chris Cooper, and Rafael fades into an impotent figurehead as an insurrection plot (his brother and son have both joined the Indio) threatens the entire village. Again, instead of bearing down on the human composure of a vastly complicated historical, political, moral, and emotional scenario, Sayles draws back to the bigger the picture -- so far back you can see Iraq from the Pacific -- and forsakes dramatic tension for aphorism.

One of the notable privates under Compton's command is played by Dane DeHaan, the recalcitrant teen from the last season of In Treatment, who here plays a young man looking for connection far from home. His scenes with the young girl he's sweet on suffer from the same stilted writing, but DeHaan inhabits them with a nervous vulnerability that gives a human dimension to the loneliness on all sides of an active conflict. Sayles made the too-rare choice to maintain the language barriers between the parties, and presses them for dramatic realism. It works well overall, but the scenes with the pair of Chinese "coolies" the Americans employ feel less like a significantly private conversation than tone-deaf burlesque. A second communication gap proves slightly less intractable: DJ Qualls brings more than his amazing Norman Rockwell physiognomy to the role of a lowly private who finds his glory as the decipherer of the brand new telegraph equipment.

Torre has the face of a diplomat, and his big, brimming eyes and conciliatory smile fill the screen with dignified authority. They can't quite fill out the character at the center of this story, however, a man whose sufferings include waterboarding, imprisonment and coercion. Even Rafael's torments are reinforced with a parallel analogy in a sequence where his gunpoint march to the Indio hideout is pointedly intercut with a village cockfight. It is perhaps at that moment that the film's real martyr, its story, succumbs to the much-dreaded and punishingly didactic death by a thousand points.



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