The Whole Story, by David Bax
More often than not, when a movie involves a large number of characters with overlapping storylines, the term “tapestry” gets thrown around by those describing it. That word only really seems to apply, however, when the characters are exclusively tied together in the abstract or sometimes solely by the fact that they’re all in the same movie. John Sayles’ films, more often than not, concern large numbers of characters with overlapping storylines but he does not make tapestries. He makes movies about community.
Sayles’ films tend to approach the idea of community from different ways each time but there are some constants, most notably the fact that any large group of people will itself be subdivided into smaller groups, often defined by race, class or both. Sayles’ newest film, Amigo, concerns a community separated into three such groups and then focuses chiefly on the men who lead those factions.
Amigo takes place in the year 1900 during the Philippine-American war in the Philippine barrio of San Isidro. A company of American soldiers garrisons the village, turning it into a defensible stronghold against the Filipino guerillas camped out in the nearby jungle. The Americans are lead by Lieutenant Compton (Garret Dillahunt) and the Filipino rebels by Simon Dacanay (Ronnie Lazaro). In between them is Simon’s brother, Rafael, the head man of the barrio. He is the amigo of the title, striking a balance between allegiance to the occupiers in the interest of his fellow villagers and his familial and patriotic duties to those living and fighting among the trees. The film is filled out with a roundly impressive cast of known and unknown actors playing those who work and live under the rule and guidance of these three men.
While the movie is mainly about the triumvirate of superintendents, Sayles remains true to his legacy by ensuring that every single character herein becomes a whole person over the course of the running time. The most interesting result of this approach is that every person falls short of being truly likable but achieves the much more important distinction of being understandable. There is, nevertheless, one character who verges upon being completely loathsome. The most reliable horse in Sayles’ stable is Chris Cooper and his visiting American general comes across as one mean son of a bitch. Really, though, that’s only because we never see him in context. We intentionally aren’t allowed to perceive the reasoning behind his decisions and attitudes. Amigo is about the community in and around San Isidro and he is not a part of it. He’s an intruder to all.
In all the film’s other cases of people acting in ways that are detrimental to others, their choices are forgivable for the simple reason that we know why they made them and the ways in which each choice is beneficial for someone. Sayles understands and communicates well that anyone who is a member of a community is also an individual with personal motivations and prejudices. The struggle between those two sides of identity provides some of the most interesting drama.
As stated above, the film is bulging with notable performances but the biggest revelation here is Yul Vazquez as the town’s Spanish priest, Padre Hidalgo. Vazquez may be most known to you as Bob, the threatening gay man from multiple episodes of Seinfeld. Here he plays the contradiction of a man who is as concerned for all human souls as he is arrogantly sure of which ones are worth saving as if it is no contradiction at all. He is never less than magnetic when he occupies the frame. As the only character who speaks both English and the language of the villagers, he serves as translator for the Americans. Each occasion of him bending the meaning of the message he’s relaying to fit his own worldview is both hilarious and harrowing. Padre Hidalgo might be simultaneously the smartest and the most small-minded person in the movie and he’s fascinating to watch.
The three camps (villagers, soldiers, rebels) have their own stories as well as sharing in the stories that overlap. Sayles highlights the similarities and differences between these people and their tales via a recurring motif. He’ll cut back and forth between two of the groups partaking in similar things at the same time in their own part of the geography (a major announcement, a funeral, etc.). Miraculously, he avoids these sections becoming trite by remaining honest to the characters and making those similarities and differences both realistic and subtle.
“Realistic” and “subtle” are words that could describe most of the movies in John Sayles’ filmography. He never turns his examinations of intersecting stories into a polemic like Paul Haggis’ Crash or an exercise in coincidences like Laurent Firode’s Happenstance. He makes films that are, in many ways, very small despite the fact that they are about so much. Even a period piece and a quasi-war film like Amigo is able to rely on a likely modest budget because not much money is needed when a film is about people and not spectacle.