Is ignorance a sin? John Sayles ponders that in MEN WITH GUNS.
Soulful Federico Luppi, best known in this country for Guillermo del Toro’s CRONOS, plays Fuentes, a Latin American doctor who learns some hard truths about his government after a lifetime of both good works and complacency.
By setting the story in a deliberately unnamed country, Sayles deprives the audience of the type of denial exercised by Dr. Fuentes, which is to say, “Bad things happen other places. It could never happen here.” Yet, Sayles also avoids using the cinematic version of a club to pound his point home. Dr. Fuentes isn’t a bad man, but he is a man who has gently and firmly closed his eyes to the realities around him.
Still, he’s compassionate. Bigotry turns his stomach. The plight of his countries native Indian population moves him to start a program to send the wonders of modern medicine into the remotest part of the jungle. What he learns when he goes in search of the students he trained for that work is that his plan to help the poorest of the poor has caused more grief than it could have ever remedied. The reason isn’t disease, but politics and a culture clash that began with Cortez.
Sayles shows the tragedy beyond irony that the people victimized because of politics, are the ones with the least understanding of why. When Fuentes asks the Indians who has been terrorizing them, the answer is always, men with Guns. A view as basic as their way of life. For them, it doesn’t matter if they’re slaughtered by rebels or the government, or if the actual murderers are Indians themselves who’ve put on uniforms. All “men with guns” are classified as white and dangerous.
Sayles’ films are complex with dashes of subtle, pointed humor. Fuentes during his travels keeps running into a pair of well-meaning but oblivious American tourists, played by Mandy Patinkin and Kathryn Grody. They’re a likeable pair who, despite their foreign status, know that a guerilla war rages somewhere in Fuentes’ country, even if they get the details wrong.
MEN WITH GUNS doesn’t insult our intelligence by solving the problems of the world in 126 minutes. But it does show the consequences of ignoring them.