A doctor travels through his native unspecified South American country slowly realising the extent of the political atrocities rife in his land.
With the possible exception of the Coen brothers, John Sayles is the most consistently interesting indie filmmaker in America today. His latest is a challenging political drama shot entirely in Spanish. Though failing to scale the pinnacles reached by 1996's Lone Star, it is nonetheless an absorbing, thoughtful and thoroughly rewarding watch.
Inspired by Francisco Goldman's novel The Long Night Of The White Chickens, this centres on Humberto Fuentes (Luppi) a distinguished, idealistic doctor who decides to travel through an unnamed South American country to hook up with former students working in impoverished villages. During his road trip, Fuentes encounters an assortment of characters — a young boy (Gonzalez), a gaudy American tourist (Patinkin), a soldier-turned-terrorist (Damian Delgado) and a defrocked priest (Damian Alcazar) — and witnesses the government-sanctioned atrocities that have ruined the heart of his country. Gradually, Fuentes' naivete is transformed into political awareness.
Densely textured and always engaging, the film touches base with many recurrent Sayles ideas; the (impossible) search for truth, the fluid relationship between past and present and the importance of myth and storytelling. Moreover, the film is shot through with the director's compassionate humanism — two political terrorists discussing the merits of various ice creams far outstrips Tarantino in the trivial conversation stakes — finding a warm, distinguished centre in Luppi's increasingly disillusioned doctor.
Occasionally the story meanders and the non-specific locale blunts the political pointedness. Yet Sayles creates a yarn that is involving and genuinely surprising. After a summer in which plots, characters and conclusions were spottable from frame one, such an offbeam intelligent approach provides a refreshing antidote.
Compelling and intriguing although the anonymity of the country lessens the impact slightly.