I hadn’t seen any of John Sayles’ movies since Men with Guns (1997). I’ve always intended to catch up with Limbo (1999), but the ones that followed just haven’t caught my interest. The reviews of Amigo caught my interest, and the movie ends up being one of Sayles’ best.
The movie is set during the American counterinsurgency in the Philippines at the turn of the previous century, after the US had acquired the Philippines and Cuba in the Spanish-American War. The action takes place in a small village or baryo where the Americans set up a garrison in order to cut off the local guerillas from village resources. The protagonist — the amigo of the title — is the head man of the village, Rafael, who is caught between the demands of the American military, the demands of the guerilla group (which is led by his brother and joined by his son), and the needs of the people in the baryo.
Although it takes place in a time of war, it doesn’t feel much like a war movie — or it feels like a lot of different genres mixed together. Above all, it is a humanistic, novelistic look at a large cast of characters who have to make difficult decisions in a time of painful changes. Sayles’ politics have always been on the left end of the spectrum, but he weaves the anti-imperialist strands of commentary into the depiction of the characters. There are villainous types — a US colonel, a Spanish priest, a Filipino with a petty grudge against Rafael — but they are ambiguous, ambivalent villains. Mostly it is a film about people who are given no good choices but have to make choices nonetheless.
It’s a sober movie, and yet it’s full of humor too — full of love for the foibles of its characters. Yankee soldiers who are too fond of drink, Filipino villagers who brag about the prowess of their cock-fighting roosters, Chinese coolies who can’t believe the white men waste their shit by burying it in lime rather than using it as fertilizer. The female characters are mostly secondary — except for Rafael’s wife, Corazon — but they make their perspective known. There is a little bit of romance, awkward, tender, incomplete — but also a very sweet depiction of the affectionate relationship between Rafael and Corazon. And raunchy sexual humor amongst the the Marines, of course, with one of them suffering from the clap whom they all call Chancre. (IMDb has the character as Shanker, but surely that’s missing the joke?)
A rich movie. There is killing, but not a lot of it — at least not compared to the amount of killing that actually happened in this war. There are pointed parallels between this counterinsurgency and modern ones (including an act of waterboarding), but they don’t feel like sledgehammers. This is really a story of human limitations and how the personal becomes political and vice versa. It’s about the relationships between individuals and how they become part of larger social convulsions. It’s a tragic story in many ways, and yet it left me feeling more contemplative than wrung out. It holds the mirror up, and I’d think that most of us would see ourselves somewhere in it.