His most recent and most satisfying film, Lone Star, was set in Texas, and before that he spun The Secret of Roan Inish on a mystical island off the coast of Ireland. In Men With Guns (Sony Pictures Classics), John Sayles – the most restlessly independent independent filmmaker in America – goes to a nameless Latin American country (Mexico serves as location stand-in) to dramatize the cost of ceaseless war, poverty, and political upheaval. As usual, the writer-director builds a closely plotted, emotionally controlled, highly serious drama. (Sayles’ films always reward audience concentration but cut little slack for stragglers.) Then, for added challenge – rather like climbing Mount Everest without oxygen – he tells the story primarily in subtitled Spanish, Kuna, Maya, Nahuatl, and Tzotzil, as well as in English. The linguistic dislocation works; we’re in a thicket of bewildering motivations, and we’ve got to keep our eyes open at all times.
Argentinean Federico Luppi stars, with much soul, as Humberto Fuentes, a rich, idealistic, naive doctor who once trained young physicians to minister to poor villagers. Aging, widowed, with a weak heart, and against all advice to avoid the dangers of the countryside, he sets out to drop in on his former students. But he can’t find them; one by one they’ve been murdered – by ”men with guns” (hombres armados, the movie’s Spanish title), the frightened locals tell him, not specifying soldiers or rebels. As Fuentes goes deeper into wildness and higher into the mountains, shedding or losing his trappings of privilege and education, he picks up an unlikely cadre of compatriots who have been unmoored by brutality. They include (a little too neatly) a wily abandoned boy (Dan Rivera González), a bitter army deserter (Damián Delgado), a shamed former priest (Damián Alcaázar), a mute, raped woman (Tania Cruz), and even a pair of blinkered American tourists (Mandy Patinkin and his wife, Kathryn Grody, relishing boorishness) who, in their oohing and ahhing over ancient Indian ruins, are blind to the ongoing ruin around them.
Men With Guns is not as hotly engaging as Lone Star, which benefited from a sexy romance at its center, nor as coolly enchanting as Roan Inish. Even with beautiful cinematography by Slawomir Idziak (Gattaca) and a vivid cast of nonprofessional locals, Sayles never overcomes a certain gringo distance. Still, his integrity shines like a luz – one that fans will follow anywhere. B