You're the most learned man I've ever met, but also the most ignorant.
After achieving both critical success and mainstream recognition from his two last films, "The Secret of Roan Inish" and "Lone Star", you would think that writer/director John Sayles would exploit his success with a follow-up effort aimed at penetrating further into the domain of mainstream audiences. However, being an independent film-maker dedicated to showcasing his own uncompromising vision, Sayles has returned with the furthest thing possible from a mainstream film-- "Men With Guns". Not only does the film take place in a Central American setting, cast with actors unknown in North America, but the dialogue is primarily in Spanish and aboriginal languages.
The story of "Men With Guns" is one of a personal journey, undertaken by Dr. Fuentes (Federico Luppi), a well-off doctor with a private medical practice in the capital city of some unnamed Latin American country. With his worldview confined to the modern luxuries of life in the city, he is a proponent of the proliferation of science and technology, and how it can vastly improve quality of life for all. He is particularly proud of his legacy-- a program in which he trained young men and women to be doctors to serve as 'ambassadors of health' in remote villages where medical care is not readily-accessible.
However, he finds his sheltered existence and his core beliefs violated when he wanders across the verdant countryside, in search of his former students and to witness the good that has been brought about by his legacy. However, as he stops at each village, he finds the residents are fearful of him, and that each student has befallen a similar fate -- taken away by 'men with guns'. Some were taken away by the army for providing medical assistance to wounded guerillas, while others were taken away by guerillas for treating government soldiers. And while each village lies under the control of either the guerillas or the government forces, Fuentes finds the same squalid and lawless conditions, regardless of politics or affiliation.
Instead of bringing peace and prosperity to the villages, it seems the benefits of civilization and technology have only made things worse. One poignant example Sayles uses is the village of the 'Coffee People', where Fuentes finds a woman with a sick baby. The child is malnourished, and the doctor suggests to the woman to feed the child a balanced diet. But because of the overpowering influence of the global market economy, the 'Coffee People' have long abandoned growing their own food, and now devote their efforts to only growing coffee for export, using the revenues to buy their food. However, this specialization is now hurting their ability to remain self-sufficient in the face of economic conditions beyond their control, such as depressed coffee prices.
During Fuentes' journey into the ravaged countryside, his journey is encroached by two American tourists (Mandy Patinkin and Kathryn Grody), who frolic about the ruins and jungles of the countryside, in search of ruins dating back to the savage past, oblivious to the savagery around them in the present. In addition to providing comic-relief to an otherwise grim narrative, they serve as an indictment against the ignorant policies of Western nations in their efforts to develop Third World nations, which amount to nothing more than empty platitudes in the face of the fundamental problems faced by these countries.
The doctor is also joined by four other travelers, each carrying a burden arising from progress. Domingo (Damian Delgado) is an army deserter, his innocence corrupted by his tour in the army, who has learned that power comes from the barrel of a gun. Conejo (Dan Rivera Gonzalez) is a boy whose childhood has been robbed by war, having been witness to the atrocities committed by both sides. 'Ghost' (Damian Alcazar) is a priest who has lost his faith after seeing his missionary work unwittingly doom a village to destruction at the hands of the army. Finally, Graciela (Tania Cruz) is a mute young woman, not having uttered a word since the day she was raped by a soldier during an attack on her village. Like the doctor, each of these characters is in search of validation for their existence, and their paths converge on the journey to a mystical place called "The Circle of Heaven", a village supposedly hidden high in the mountains, such that neither the soldiers nor the guerillas can plunder it.
The hallmarks of the typical John Sayles film are found in "Men With Guns": the mystical narrative touches, intricately-crafted characters, relaxed pacing, and 'loaded' dialogue, full of profound exposition on difficult social issues. Though this effort is not as layered and thematically-complex as "Lone Star", it is still a powerful and insightful film which demands more than one viewing. Whether you are a fan of Sayles' work, or seek a challenging and thought-provoking film, "Men With Guns" is a film to see.