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54th BFI London Film Festival – Amigo

“John Sayles latest film is a humanistic, suspenseful historical drama with a modern resonance, an essential addition to fans of mature, adult cinema.”


Directed by John Sayles

Written by John Sayles

USA, 2010

Hands up if you’ve heard of the US invasion of the Philippines in 1900? No? Me neither. This obscured historical conflict provides the back-drop to John Sayles latest achievement, a film which has obvious coetaneous links to more recent efforts of US nation building, of winning the hearts and minds of a hostile indigenous populace, but any concerns that this would be a bludgeoning, transparent diatribe are swiftly evaporated with Sayles fine sense of characterisation and performance. There are no defined black & whites in Amigo but alternating shades of gray, as such the political points are present but finessed to a fine point, and even a scene displaying a primitive version of waterboarding doesn’t feel too clunky, it doesn’t feel too conspicuous, given the breadth of Sayles research that he alluded to in the post screening Q&A you can be assured that he has culled such echoes from real torture methods of the era to make the film even more resonant. But lets begin with an overview;

In 1900 the United States government invaded the Philippines as part of its ideology of ‘liberating’ countries from its contemporary ideological enemies, in this case the colonialist Spanish, whom had annexed the archipelago and incurred the wrath of the erstwhile US ally President Aguinaldo. Amigo centres on the fate of one modest village (or Baryo in the local parlance) and its denizens who are caught in the crossfire of the American invaders and indigenous insurgents, a difficult and treacherous period for both peasant farmers, village leaders and committed desperado’s, as a small US force uses their homes to establish a forward garrison. This places the head of the village in a potentially lethal quandary, his negotiating with the mostly dismissive American troops through the manipulated translations of a Spanish priest presents its own obstacles, a hinderance complicated by the fact that the local guerillas detachment is led by his brother and bolstered by his teenage son, both of whom regard him as a collaborator…

Amigo has that warm Sayles humanism in spades and his usual strengths – a discerning skill in astute characterisation, a grasp of unconventional plotting and an a sagacious observation of political and historical patterns – are all here in this insightful, adult drama. In one fantastic spit of dialogue the village menfolk are instructed to vote – democracy being an unusual and bewildering prospect to a society built on generations of rule by the village elders – and a junior officer points out that perhaps to make proceedings more democratic they should let the women participate in order to make up the shortfall in numbers, the younger men having fled to join the guerrillas – ‘don’t be ridiculous’ comes the sneering response from a junior officer, as if such equality was morally repugnant. In another unconventional touch the usual moral centre of a film such as this, the archetypal figure of decency and temperance would be encapsulated in a religious figure, in Amigo that would be Padre Hidalgo, a Catholic clergyman who, to use an academic phrase, is a self-righteous, hypocritical wanker of the highest order. He revels in the new power and influence that has been usurped to him after the demotion of the village leader, and his fate is not what you’d expect or what he deserves.

The films characters are not cyphers, they are not black and white figureheads with the soldiers singularly the imperialist instruments of torture and murder, nor are the villagers simply the resourceful and fiercely proud natives that stand as Amigo’s oppressed heroes. The individuals within both groups are presented as sometimes agreeable and sometimes disagreeable – in short they are human, and are ably supported in the presentation of this task by fine performances from Garret Dillahunt, Bembol Roco and Sayles favourite Chris Cooper. Amigo’s plot strands are not necessarily followed to their expected conclusions, although the film does conclude on a throughly satisfying race against time, a detail culled once again from the extensive historical research of the era. John Sayles latest film is a humanistic, suspenseful historical drama with a modern resonance, an essential addition to fans of mature, adult cinema.

– John McEntee

visit the official site for the 54th BFI London Film Festival