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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Aug. 18, 2011 | 10:50 PM

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With the release of his 17th feature film, Amigo coming fresh on the heels of his latest novel A Moment In the Sun, John Sayles the writer is clearly in the midst of a fertile creative period.  A standard knock on Sayles the director is that his films are overly talky; more novelistic than cinematic.  Shot entirely on location in the Philippines, and working with a largely Filipino cast and crew, Amigo sidesteps this problem and emerges as one of Sayles’most fully realized works.  Not only does the film ably capture the lush beauty of the island landscape, it also sheds light on a largely forgotten chapter of American military history, one which has erie twenty-first century parallels.

The product of extensive research by Sayles and his longtime partner, Maggie Renzi, Amigo is set in 1901, during the final months of the Filipino-American war.  A strange by-product of the U.S. war with Spain over Cuba, this conflict became one of the first examples of American expansionist reach.  After passing a congressional resolution forbidding the U.S. from annexing Cuba in the wake of their war with the Spanish, American forces turned their attention to the Philippines, which was in the midst of a struggle to shake off Spain’s Colonial rule.  During treaty negotiations in Paris, Spain agreed to “sell” the Phillipines to the U.S. for $20 million.  Filipinos were not consulted, but it was determined that U.S. troops would have to squelch the local insurrection in order for the islands to officially be annexed to American control.  As the titles at the beginning of Amigo proclaim, the U.S. simply “decided to stay.”

Part of what makes Amigo work so well is that the viewer doesn’t need to know any of this in order to enjoy the film.  Using the facts of the conflict as a backdrop, Sayles has carefully crafted a personal story of the people caught in the middle.  The beginning of the film depicts a small village or baryo which comes under control of the U.S. Cavalry.  Led by the iron willed Colonel Hardacre (Sayles regular Chris Cooper), the men are to keep the village from falling under control of Filipino guerillas.  As the “head man” in the village, Rafael (Joel Torre) must balance his need to keep the American troops happy with his loyalties to the rebels, which include both his brother and young son.  His task is made all the more difficult by the presence of a conniving Spanish priest (Yul Vasquez), whose only real loyalty is to himself.

Torre is the heart and soul of Amigo.  Already a major star in the Phillipines, his performance here should have no trouble putting him on the radar of American film audiences.  It doesn’t hurt that Sayles has written him a tremendous role which takes full advantage of the actor’s impressive range.  The ending of Rafael’s journey may have a tragic inevitability, but there are flashes of humor, romance and pathos along the way.

Like many of Sayles’ previous films, Sayles places his sympathies with the local communities.  As a result, in the film’s early stages, the Americans are portrayed as cartoonish oppressors.  When the rainy season arrives, and the two groups become more enmeshed, we see a more complex portrait of the soldiers emerge.  Some romantic attachments begin to form, and one sequence features a local celebration wherein the villagers and their would be occupiers appear to have a lovely evening together.

All of this is derailed by the return of Cooper’s character in the third act.  Disgusted by the apparent camaraderie that’s developed between his men and the locals, he quickly attempts to tighten the screws.  His Lieutenant in charge complains, “We have to live with these people!”  Cooper barks back: “No, you have to make war on these people!”  One of John Sayles most loyal soldiers, Cooper plays what he’s been given, but his character feels more like a plot device than an actual person.

As the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rage on, Amigo is a chilling reminder of how little has changed.  At one point, Sayles even manages to unearth what appears to be an early form of water boarding.  Amigo is at its most effective when it makes these points subtly, while focusing on militarism’s human cost.

Amigo opens Friday, August 19th at the Laemmle 4-Plex in Santa Monica.  Joel Torre is scheduled to appear for discussion after the 7:00 show on Friday the 19th.  Writer/Director John Sayles is scheduled to appear after the 7:00 show on Monday, August 22nd.  In English and Tagalog with English subtitles.

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