(John Sayles, US, 1997)
I'm a big booster of Sayles's movies, but this one was something of a disappointment. It's a well-made film by any objective standard, but it doesn't feel particularly vital or urgent, which has at least something to do with the urgency of the subject matter. Rather than making the world of the film come alive, it feels too often like Sayles was conducting an academic exercise, scrupulously reporting the tragic woes of South and Central America; it brims with solemnity but mostly feels inert. Flat-footed pacing and an arid tone aren't new features of the Sayles canon, but when he's really cooking, he makes his simplicity and earnestness work for him, slyly evoking emotion from unpredictability even as he seems to be the picture of classicist storytelling.
Some of the blame could probably be leveled at the premise; John Sayles, the indie-man's indie director, makes a film in South America (the locale is never specified exactly), with a South American cast, and with an almost exclusively Spanish script. There's a whiff of do-it-because-you-can attitude to such a proposition, and in the end, it doesn't deliver on the gambit. The scenes are often plodding and disconnected from each other, the flashbacks feel forced and superfluous, and the overall impact is one of weary respect, but for me, lacked admiration. The strongest element by far is the acting, which gives rise to some flashes of beauty and lyricism that are otherwise largely absent. In Sayles quietly epic folktale, he stumbles in his attempt to meld quiet gravity with the inevitable enormity of Latin American hardship, but I can't bring myself to fault him for trying.