"Every man should leave a legacy, something he built - something he left in the world," says Dr. Fuentes, the lead character in John Sayles' Men With Guns. It's a line delivered by a man who's journeyed far and wide to discover that the far-reaching legacy he's labored hard to build has crumbled. It's a line delivered with a mixture of resignation and bemusement, ego having been bruised then brushed aside for something approaching enlightenment. But this being a Sayles film, and with the director at the top of his form, the journey is filled with radical political awakenings, spiritual deaths and rebirths, mysticism, gentle but astutely observed moments of human interaction, and twisted, unexpected humor.
Dr. Fuentes (Federico Luppi) is a wealthy guero, a fair-skinned Mexican, with a successful city practice and a roster of well-to-do socialite patients with too much time on their hands, too much money and no real illnesses. Increasingly frustrated with his own life and career, Fuentes decides to check up on some former students, a group he'd groomed to work with poor Indians scattered throughout the countryside. Despite the protests of his daughter and her bigoted boyfriend, he sets out in his fully stocked four-wheel-drive Wagoneer to locate his proteges. What he stumbles across is enormous poverty, government-orchestrated or -ignored chaos, an ongoing skirmish between the army and guerrilla fighters that's trapped ordinary people in the middle, and a pair of American tourists (Mandy Patinkin and Kathryn Grody) who provide comic relief while just skirting caricature.
The doctor quickly comes to realize that his arrogance - and ignorance about the reality of Indian life - has led him to turn his students out into the world tragically unprepared. Their education and willingness to help render them suspicious in the eyes of the Indians; the same qualities mark them for death by both the army and rebel fighters. As Fuentes canvasses the country, slowly being stripped of his possessions by robbers, he encounters a Mexico he never even knew existed. As the murky fates of his students become clearer, with his legacy of noble patronage slipping further away, Fuentes is slowly humbled by what he's forced to bear witness to - though not without constant backsliding into guero privilege.
The characters in Men are some of Sayles' most finely sketched yet. A preadolescent orphan with a frightening knowledge of the workings of the army latches on to the doctor early, and it's through his dry-eyed levity that most of the film's dark humor is channeled. A runaway soldier and a priest who's abandoned his calling are capsulated by Fuentes' withering observation, "A priest without faith is worse than a soldier without a rifle." These are the traveling companions Fuentes acquires, often unwillingly. It's through their flashbacks and world-weary existence that Sayles makes his points about class warfare, the skin trade that continues to play out in Mexican culture, government manipulation of inequity and the struggle to survive despite it all.
From the sexual struggle in Lianna and the satiric race tract of The Brother From Another Planet to the tale of sports corruption in Eight Men Out, and the racial and familial conflicts of Lone Star (the obvious springboard for this film), Sayles has been concerned with the minor tragedies that happen every day, and the way they feed the big themes of power, justice and freedom. A master storyteller, he has an ear for the music of everyday-speak and a talent for capturing ordinary folks caught in unbearable situations; he knows how to mark their heroism. Working from a moral compass rooted in compassion and a keen sense of fairness, he's carved a spot for himself as one of this country's most empathetic directors. That Men With Guns is entirely in Spanish, with subtitles, does nothing to diminish those gifts. Textured, fine and novelistic, Men With Guns finds the director once again protesting from the heart - a muscle too few American filmmakers even bother to exercise anymore.
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