One thing about John Sayles: calling his films didactic or preachy seems like stating the obvious at this point, because that’s just kind of the way Sayles’ films are. From Matewan (1987) — a great film, but see it if only for the young Will Oldham — to Casa de Los Babys (2003), Sayles’ films may be complex and cross-sectional, but the big lessons at their cores are not. I realize I’m being willfully reductionist if I reduce a film’s moral to “We’re all connected” or “The world isn’t as black and white as you think,” but viewers of Lone Star (1996) or Eight Men Out (1988) — two very fine films — may agree with my assessment.
I think that’s just how Sayles rolls, and that’s fine with me; best get that out of the way. Amigo may be Sayles’ least commercial film in quite a while, probably as much as my favorite film of his, Men with Guns (1997), and I take that fact (along with the clearly shoestring budget) as proof of Amigo being a labor of love. (Do a Google search for “Sayles” and “uncompromising” and you’ll see what I mean.)
The “amigo” of the title is Rafael Dacanay — played wonderfully by Joel Torre, his old heartthrob looks still undiminished — the head of a small barrio who has to deal with the American soldiers who have invaded his home and established a small garrison. (After Dacanay calls himself “amigo” when confronted by the soldiers — it’s probably one of the few Spanish words he knows, and what else would you tell a non-Spanish Westerner? — the nickname sticks.) But Dacanay is caught in a bind between protecting the villagers (by nominally cooperating with the Americans*) and helping the “insurrectos” out in the jungle (led by, naturally, his ex-seminarian brother).
It wouldn’t be a Sayles film without a large ensemble cast, though. The always dependable Chris Cooper heads up the Americans** as the intolerant Colonel, and the Filipino cast — a whole host of film and theater veterans — is particularly impressive: along with Torre, Bembol Roco, Spanky Manikan, Irma Adlawan, Ronnie Lazaro and Rio Locsin are here. I don’t think one gets to see that caliber of Filipino acting together in a movie very often. Add to that a Tagalog translation by Pete Lacaba — and the Tagalog is way more eloquent than the subtitles show — and you’ve already got the workings of a great Filipino film.
Amigo is handsomely filmed, almost with a lush, digitally-enhanced hyperreality. (You almost long for the artifice of Raya Martin’s dreamlike Maicling pelicula nang ysang Indio Nacional (2005), an eerie simulation of the old Edison newsreels from the era; in an odd way it looks more authentic than Amigo.) The production design is practically postcard-perfect — and I do mean postcard, since the looks and costumes are straight out of postcards from that era — but perhaps too perfect. The costumes are gorgeous, but awfully pristine for a dusty barrio caught in the turmoil of revolution and invasion; just about every barong that Rafael sports is something I’d love to have hanging in my closet.
The film is entertaining, for sure, if only for the skillful way in which Sayles (writer, director and editor) weaves the relevant historical details. The indios — as called by the Spaniards — are referred to as “goo-goos” (and even goo-goo dolls) all throughout by the soldiers, and even the “Damn the Filipinos” march makes an appearance. One soldier talks about his previous experience in hunting “redskins” — some of the more famous top brass sent to the Philippines were veterans of the Indian Wars — and there’s a reference to General MacArthur (that’s Arthur MacArthur, father of Douglas). (I particularly liked the conversation between the lieutenant and the priest about Filipino musicians being good mimics. That may sound like a surprisingly contemporary observation, in this age of Filipino musicians playing on cruise ships and hotel lounges worldwide, but that’s actually straight from the colonial memoirs.)
But the film’s historical accuracy — not to say that I’m a good judge of that — doesn’t necessarily make for great viewing. The main problem with Amigo is that there’s almost no tension in the film. As his way of demonstrating breadth — and, perhaps, sacrificing character depth in the process by latitudinally skimming a society — Sayles places his ensemble cast in a series of conversational dyads, one after the other. (And some of these conversations, like one between Rafael’s wife and the priest about killing and the sagrada causa, are unfortunately quite stilted.)
These conversations aren’t a new technique; Sayles uses these effectively in Sunshine State (2002), Limbo (1999) and City of Hope (1991) — three films that are more about the societal fabric, the texture of a place — but they’re not the best substitute for a film that seems to be crying out for a big chugging engine for a plot. Amigo is about war and loyalty and treachery in a foreign land, after all.
This is life during wartime, but the villagers don’t seem particularly on edge. They’re not hungry — even if we witness sacks of rice thrown into the river by the soldiers, just to show the townspeople who’s boss — they don’t seem to be getting sick, and they don’t seem to be very fearful or even wary of the Americans’ presence. Heck, these villagers even have time to put on a fiesta and have a cockfight — though knowing Filipinos, they probably would have done so.
The ending — and I’ll skip a rather embarrassing montage that involves telegraph wires and a big O. Henry-type conclusion — concludes on a clumsy note, almost as if Sayles wasn’t sure where to end the film. I’m assuming that Sayles trusted his audience to get it — Americans have been granting amnesty to friendly Iraqis and Afghanis for quite some time now, too — but there’s a missed opportunity for a mini-lecture here before the credits roll. Like, a death toll would have been nice, or maybe a title about how hostilities between Americans and the insurrectos effectively continued until at least 1906, long after the territory was mapped out by surveyors and peace was ostensibly declared.
I suspect my good buddies Barbara Jane Reyes and Oscar Bermeo will write about this at some point, because they brought it up. But it raises the interesting question of who the movie is for. Amigo assumes an awful lot from its audience, I think; despite the deft exposition, some scenes wouldn’t make much sense.
Take, for instance, the excellent scene where the villagers in supplication after the Spanish priest — who was considered the enemy only a few minutes earlier, and just sprung from house arrest — asks them to kneel in prayer. It’s a fantastic illustration of the power of Catholicism, but it’s not just meant to portray the populace as meek sheep, as the scene might imply. It helps if the viewer understands the critical role of the clergy — sometimes the only representative of Spain in certain towns — as landowner and dispenser of patronage during the Spanish colonial period.
But there’s another reason why I’m fine with Amigo‘s supposed preachiness. Amigo has a liberal didacticism that, to me, seems particularly suited for the topic. Most viewers will have Vietnam and Afghanistan as their frames of reference as they watch Amigo. (In one anachronistic wink to the audience — it may in fact be the only one — one lieutenant says, “We’re here to win their hearts and minds,” as he admonishes his soldiers from causing too much havoc, and I’m pretty sure the phrase isn’t used to refer to military tactics until Lyndon B. Johnson does, about six decades later.)
But for this viewer, the main referent is, of course, the Philippines, and Sayles exercises great control, I think, in letting the facts speak for themselves. The hamletting, the torching of houses, dealing with pesky guerrillas who shoot at you once or twice and vanish into the jungle like ghosts, the “water cure” — methods employed in Vietnam and Abu Ghraib, but first tested in the Philippines. At least you can say the U.S. military remains consistent.
Amigo is about the Filipino-American War, a war that dragged on for way longer than the Spanish-American War, and yet is largely remembered mostly as a footnote. The Philippines, in the great scheme of things, may be particularly insignificant in current American foreign affairs, but the U.S.’s “little misadventure” in the muddy tropics — I’m enjoying my own euphemisms here — was their first concrete step into the colonial unknown, the inauguration of a colonial empire, and the continuation of a “civilizing process” (there goes a euphemism again!) that began with the extermination of indigenous peoples in a westerly direction across the American landscape. One might argue that the lack of historical consciousness regarding the Filipino-American War is precisely the successful implementation of American benevolent assimilation, a kind of collective blindness on an ideological scale.***
When historian John Fiske published his lecture “Manifest Destiny” in Harper’s in 1885, you wonder if his voice quavered, even just a little, when he could foresee a time when
every land on the earth’s surface that is not already the seat of an old civilization shall become English in its language, in its political habits and traditions, and to a predominant extent in the blood of its people. The day is at hand when four-fifths of the human race will trace its pedigree to English forefathers….
As the American Empire trembles in its final days, in the grip of a financial crisis and the spell of a bellicose foreign policy, the movie viewer just might be curious as to where it all began. And that’s one good reason to see Amigo.
* The scholar Jojo Abinales might cynically argue that wilier barrio captains than Rafael would have easily cooperated with the Americans as a way to retain and perhaps increase their political power; in turn, the American colonial officials would have recognized a bit of Tammany Hall in the native elite.
** Speaking of the Americans, their first appearance in the film is staged with great effect: the villagers pause in the middle of their activities as they see/hear something offscreen, and the first soldiers pop up from the foreground into the frame and push people out of their way. It’s a nice touch because their appearance is literally intrusive.
*** Or, far more likely, not. Ask folks about Guam or Puerto Rico, or why the U.S. has a military base on Cuba, and I suspect the person would draw a blank. Colonial artifact, or shitty public education, who knows — but hey, it’s the same ideological state apparatus anyway, right?