Amigo is by no means an attractive movie. It could have been — the story, set during the Philippine–American War, takes place in the lush jungle of the Southeast Asian country. Instead, writer and director John Sayles’ film feels almost made for TV: the soundtrack and sound effects are a bit cheesy, the costumes seem too clean and new to reflect authenticity, and the overall wash of the film won’t win any cinematography awards. But in lieu of engaging shots of its exotic environment, Sayles chooses to emphasize an exotic topic, built on absorbing character development.

Sayles is one of the few filmmakers to tackle this oft-overlooked part of American history, a subject also covered in his novel A Moment in the Sun, published by McSweeney’s earlier this year. Interested viewers might want to bone up on the conflict before seeing the film. Set in 1900, Amigo‘s main focus is on the amigo, Rafael (Joel Torre), head man of the San Isidro barrio, deprived of the young men who have gone to fight in the revolution led by Emilio Aguinaldo. Rafael sums up the plot perfectly: “We’re fucked from both ends.” (Of course, he says it in a different language.) When Lt. Compton (Garret Dillahunt) and his troops take over the small village, Rafael is placed in a tricky position. Does he follow the orders of the sometimes sympathetic Americans or does he remain faithful to the nearby rebel troops, led by his brother? Either side will punish him for his betrayal with death, and things get more complicated when Rafael’s own son joins the resistance.

Sayles presents many concurrent views of the situation, from the perspectives of the townspeople versus the rebels, and through the eyes of the Filipinos, Americans, Spanish, and even Chinese. It would have been easy for Sayles to leave his characters one-dimensional (the racist soldiers, the frightened villagers), to follow the formulas set by so many other war films, but he doesn’t. Alternatively, most of the personalities in Amigo‘s compelling ensemble cast are built up in the 124 minutes that pass as the Americans tighten their hold on the barrio: the young soldier who falls for a village girl (a fairly cliché scenario but still endearing here), the barrio’s cockfighting winemaker, a grisly Chris Cooper as a cold-hearted American colonel, and especially the slimy and conniving Spanish priest, who manipulates his position as a translator and religious leader for his own gain.

Amigo unfolds like many similar stories, with the different men learning to respect and sympathize with each other. This fact is truer of the Americans than Rafael, who is mostly living in fear for his life. The troops help the villagers rebuild a house, then the villagers throw an annual party and the soldiers eat their food and drink their booze. However, this burgeoning relationship can’t, of course, end all lovey-dovey. Tensions build as the clash continues, and whether he deserves it or not, Rafael’s place on both sides begins to waver.

Though history speaks for itself, there really are no winners in this film. The ending is especially tragic — it wraps up regrettably for most involved, as war often does. While Amigo‘s look seems more fitting for a PBS premiere than a general theatrical release, despite coming from the filmmaker behind Lone Star and even Piranha, its characters push the unfamiliar story forward to a realistic conclusion. The film may disappoint visually, but it won’t thematically.

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