A Latin American doctor disappears into the forbidding wilderness of his country, in search of his former students and, perhaps, absolution. In John Sayles' Men With Guns, Dr. Humberto Fuentes journeys into a heart of darkness with political, moral and spiritual overtones. While Sayles' follow-up to the hit independent 1996 release Lone Star is more predictable than we expect from Sayles, it is every bit as weighty, and features typically intriguing characters.
Sayles based Fuentes on a character from Francisco Goldman's novel, The Long Night of White Chickens, and as played by Federico Luppi, Fuentes is engaging and tragic. On the frontier of retirement, Fuentes stumbles onto a truth he had been unwilling to see: that the idealistic medical aid program he counted among his greatest achievements hit a dead-end. Learning that his scattered students are disillusioned, endangered or perhaps dead at the hands of guerrilla forces, Fuentes sets out into the mountains, both reluctant and driven.
What follows is essentially a road movie and a fable, as Fuentes meets characters representing various viewpoints on the plight of this unnamed country: a young boy (Dan Rivera Gonzalez) who seems remarkably and pitiably well-adjusted to his world of impoverishment and violence; an army deserter on edge and on the run (Damian Delgado); a defrocked priest (Damian Alcazar) who carries a burden like Fuentes; and an American tourist couple blithely unaware of the atrocities around them (Mandy Patinkin and Kathryn Grody).
If you have seen a John Sayles film, you know what to expect: a polemic film whose seams occasionally show, a deliberate film with a sometimes trying pace, and yet a fascinating film with implications for both characters who demand empathy and the audience. Most of the film is in Spanish, and Sayles likewise directed in Spanish. But the universal quality of the film is apparent. Anywhere injustice goes unnoticed, or actively ignored, the people take part in the victimization of a society. Through the pointed example of the ignorant tourists, Sayles finds not only comic relief, but a direct indictment of American indifference to true political disasters outside of our acceptable media radar. Through Fuentes, he asks the question: do we not want to hear the cry of the victims, and do we fear the life of the martyr? Surely, the answer is yes, and Sayles makes and engaging case for salvation through truth.