Amigo | Screen | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper


John Sayles' ambitious but over-stuffed drama recounts the American-Filipino battle of the early 20th century

It's 1900, and a small village in the Philippines is beset with conflict: The colonial Spaniards are leaving but American soldiers are pouring in, all while some villagers head to the jungle to become revolutionaries. At the center is Rafael (Joel Torre), the village leader who struggles to hold the community together, even after the Americans commandeer his house and authority, and his teen-age son runs off to join the rebels. Writer-director John Sayles' ensemble drama strives to cover this multidimensional conflict from all angles: good Americans, bad Americans, immigrant Chinese workers, Filipino insurgents, ordinary villagers and residual Spanish colonists (in the person of a grumpy priest). 

It's an ambitious undertaking -- especially about a historical event most Americans are unfamiliar with -- and it suffers from its scope. (Sayles even tosses in some ethnography, recreating a barrio fiesta.) Too many characters feel one-dimensional, and I wish more time had been spent developing the critical conflicts within Rafael's family. To advance the half-dozen narratives, Sayles often has characters deliver explanations, rather than naturalistic dialogue. Torre is good -- and Sayles regular Chris Cooper shows up to chew some scenery -- but too many of the smaller roles veer toward the hammy.

America's long-ago involvement in the Philippines has obvious parallels to later overseas military forays in Vietnam and the Middle East, and no doubt this aspect attracted Sayles, whose work often encompasses larger social and political issues. So, while Amigo is not without interest, suffice it to say it's an uneven exercise, just like the historical action it depicts. In English, and Tagalog, Spanish and Chinese, with subtitles. Starts Fri., Oct. 7. Harris