Men With Guns

You hear a lot about independent movies these days, to the point where fatuous fluff passes for daring, even at Sundance or Cannes. John Sayles, a writer and director on the indie circuit from Return of the Secaucus Seven in 1980 to Lone Star in 1996, is the real deal in rebel filmmaking. His sense of purpose is powered by keen wit, potent dialogue and a sharp eye for character.

Men With Guns ranks with Sayles' best. Though shot in Mexico, the film is set in an unnamed Latin American country that could stand in for Guatemala, South Africa or any place where political aggression is carried out through fear, ignorance and men with guns. Humberto Fuentes (Federico Luppi), a widowed doctor approaching a comfortable retirement, decides to visit the students he trained to work among the Indians in his country's poor villages. What Dr. Fuentes finds exposes a reign of terror and his own willful blindness.

Sayles is using the good doctor -- Luppi, the excellent Argentine actor, plays him with a haunting blend of dignity and creeping doubt -- to take the audience on a journey into areas uncharted by conventional Hollywood films. Some of the trip is rough going. Mandy Patinkin and his real-life wife, Kathryn Grody, appear as married tourists who are too obviously symbols of Sayles' impatience with Americans' unawareness of things outside their own world. It's the natives Fuentes encounters along the way who reveal the film's scope. Conejo (Dan Rivera González), an abandoned child of rape, acts as the doctor's guide. There is also Domingo (Damián Delgago), an army deserter; Portillo (Damián Alcázar), a defrocked priest; and Graciela (Tania Cruz), a mute Indian whose small smile of hope in the film's shattering final scene captures the resilience that Sayles seeks in the midst of these ubiquitous men with guns. This film means to shake us, and it does.