Sayles dramatizes riveting conflict in Philippine history
WE watched John Sayles’ turn-of-the-century war drama, “Amigo,” with mixed feelings: We were proud to see Joel Torre, Rio Locsin and other Filipinos acting alongside Chris Cooper (“Adaptation”) in the Oscar-nominated filmmaker’s (“Lone Star”) latest screen outing, but saddened by the bitter truths the production’s allegorical depiction of the horrors of invasion brings to the fore.
Indeed, war brings out the best and worst in people—as it does when a garrison left by American troops chasing the “insurgent” Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo is commissioned by Col. Hardacre (Cooper) to remain in the rice-growing barrio of San Isidro to “protect” the people against their “inability” to effectively govern themselves. We can’t help but ask: Has anything changed since?
At the heart of this conflict is cabeza de barangay, Rafael Dacanay (Joel Torre), who is torn between the underground guerrilla forces headed by his brother (Ronnie Lazaro) and the suspicious invaders led by Lt. Ike Compton (Garret Dillahunt).
The fact that his son has also chosen to join the resistance doesn’t make it easier for Rafael and his wife, Corazon (Rio Locsin), to welcome their Caucasian “visitors” with open arms. But, life goes on for Rafael and his put-upon people, who remain under the spiritual guidance of spiteful Spanish friar, Fr. Hidalgo (Yul Vazquez), who says he can’t leave the flock he’s been assigned to serve—despite his dislike for them!
As the mistrustful conquerors and their new wards slowly settle into a semblance of peaceful coexistence, it soon becomes clear that the two factions make strange bedfellows—a volatile relationship that comes to a head when more and more of the locals’ civil liberties are taken away from them. Will Rafael and his followers survive this moral and socio-political juggernaut?
With Lee Briones-Meily’s photography vividly capturing the story’s period feel, Sayles transports moviegoers to a little-known chapter of the Philippine-American war at the turn of the 19th century. His resilient skill at creating sturdy bonds among his characters smoothly moves the intriguing exposition along.
Unobtrusively (and sans flashy theatrics), the film clues viewers in on their motivations before salient shifts in the narrative take place (some of them we have not heard about in history lessons in school).
A quibble: When the carabaos were being bludgeoned to death by the American soldiers, you couldn’t hear any sound of anguish from both the poor creatures and their human owners—which is too much subservience for our taste.
“Amigo’s” snippets of history are expressively and movingly brought to life by Torre, Locsin, Cooper and their coactors. We must, however, single out the riveting portrayal turned in by Yul Vazquez, the kura paroko, who energizes every scene he’s in. Vazquez’s character is flawed and far from heroic, but his engaging characterization ignites much-needed tension in sluggish scenes in need of a shot of adrenaline!
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