A Brief History of Counterinsurgency: Amigo

08/17/2011 4:00 AM |


Directed by John Sayles

Leave it to one of the godfathers of independent film, John Sayles, to explore a period of American history barely portrayed on film or covered in textbooks. Amigo, his 17th feature, is set at the turn of the 20th century during the Philippine-American War. Don’t know much about it? You’re probably not alone, but an estimated million Filipino deaths should bring our attention into sharper focus.

Joel Torre plays Rafael, the mayor of a small rural village who mostly oversees minor disputes.  (He settles an argument between two farmers after one farmer’s  pig eats the other’s sweet potato crop.) But the arrival of big, brash American soldiers, who come to town to weed out Filipino revolutionaries, seriously disrupts the quiet, happy rhythms of village life.  Mostly incompetent, young and ignorant, the soldiers are meant to treat the villagers as allies but instead put them to work and trust no one. Their lone interpreter is a duplicitous Spanish priest (Yul Vasquez) who, at best, treats the locals as children.

The soldiers’ mission is to smoke out the mayor’s brother (Ronnie
Lazaro), head of the local guerilla forces, who is hiding out in the jungle with a small band of revolutionaries who refuse to submit to American annexation. Some local moonshine, a budding romance, and a village celebration ease tensions until a bloodthirsty American colonel (Chris Cooper) pays a visit, reprimands his soldiers and tortures the mayor for information.

At its worst, Amigo occasionally plays as flatly functional as a History Channel drama, but the writing and acting generally elevate the proceedings. An intriguing subplot concerns a young soldier and villager who fall in love despite the language barrier separating them: the affair becomes much more complicated when the soldier is ordered to torture the mayor for information on the guerillas, and his betrayal is simply answered with a turn of the back.
The characters initially seem one-dimensional: a devious Catholic priest, ignorant, rampaging Americans and innocent, doe-eyed villagers.  However, as the film unfolds, the characters do as well, becoming more than mere stereotypes. Ultimately, even more than a reenactment of an often-overlooked chapter of history, the film is an engaging drama about the victims and complexity of war. One quibble: given the lush locale, more evocative cinematography would have given the film more expressive depth.

Opens August 19