BY MARIO M. MULLER
Now let us praise the inspired independent. Now let us praise the singular voice. Let us praise anger and grace. Let us praise political convictions and personal depth. Now let us praise John Sayles. In a career spanning over two decades, director, author, screenwriter and general maverick Sayles has been carving a career as diverse as it is brilliant. The latest offering from Sayles’ prodigious productivity is Men With Guns, a fiercely intelligent, dogmatic film which once again proves Sayles to be the master of his domain.
The setting is Latin America and it is to the writer/director’s immediate credit that the location of this film’s narrative remains unnamed: a story of persecution and insidious reticence could happen anywhere. Humberto Fuentes, a wealthy doctor is nearing retirement. As he reflects on the span of his career, we learn that his greatest pride lies in his devoted participation in a program of training young doctors to be sent out into remote regions to assist the poorest villages. He considers these pupils to be his ‘legacy.’ As his professional life draws to a close, it is his intention to visit his pupils in the field. Upon hearing this, his children and a distinguished army general try to dissuade him to no avail. They know what he will find but refuse to elaborate.
In town after town Dr. Fuentes finds nothing but disappointment. His pupils are nowhere to be found and the reoccurring explanation for their absence is that “Men with Guns” came to town. Evidence of their demise begins accumulating and the fabric of studied denial, that sheltered the good doctor’s life, starts to unravel. Unconscious blissful ignorance is replaced by conscious anger, pain and frustration.
The leitmotif of tragedy is clearly evident. The doctor’s undoing emanates from his own unrelenting curiosity. The film, written and shot in various dialects of Spanish presents a complex portrait of a nation of fear and silence. Our inability to speak the language heightens this emotional claustrophobia.
Stories of political injustice and military oppression are age old narrative forms but Sayles knows how to draw us in. With personal identification and sympathy Sayles draws us in. Whether we can feel with the doctor’s naiveté or feel for his slowly crumbling view of reality, we as audience members in the darkened theaters of any John Sayles film, are willing emotional accomplices. At the end of most of this indie master’s trails lies a strange sense of catharsis. We are released from the womb of the theater to a world which seems different. And therein lies the power of Sayles as a filmmaker: reality can only change as a subset of the alteration of perception.
In 1981, long before Ellen came out of the closet on network television, Sayles wrote a stirring and compassionate portrait film called Lianna which was about a woman coming to terms with her sexuality. Before Lawrence Kasdan made the angst of the aging baby boomer into a music video tableau with the Big Chill, Sayles had covered the same terrain with the Return of the Secaucus Seven [a film Kasdan acknowledges loosely inspired his far more commercial hit]. And long before Kevin Costner made the national pasttime of Baseball into a bland hallmark card with films like Bull Durham and Field of Dreams, Sayles’s Eight Men Out had been there and done that better, wiser and with more compassion and outright emotion.
In short, the opportunity to see a Sayles film in the theater on a first run release is not to be missed. Not only do his films contain powerful narratives carried on the wings of great filmaking but they inevitably foreshadow more mainstream versions of nearly identical themes.
The latter versions are unanimously watered down; drenched as they are with platitudes, clichés and self congratulatory pretension.
Sayles is the genuine article though and as with most originals, once sampled, the knockoffs are transformed from inoffensive to indigestible. It pays to go directly to the source.