'Men With Guns' Hits the Target

American independent filmmaker John Sayles does something so bold in his new movie, "Men With Guns," that it deserves to be underscored as vividly as possible: He presents a story about Spanish-speaking people in which the characters actually speak Spanish!

This may sound like a minor point, but its implications are important. For many years now, United States audiences have been shying away from foreign-language films; theaters have been increasingly reluctant to show them; and journalists have been sluggish about covering them.

It's scandalous that such patterns should persist at a time when our world continues to shrink every day, making international interests more vital than ever. Where better than the movies to let our horizons grow?

In this atmosphere, it's an act of courage for Sayles to tackle a Latin American story and insist on its characters speaking the language of their own lives (with English subtitles) rather than translated "Moviespeak."

"Men With Guns," also known as "Hombres Armados," is praiseworthy in other respects, including the sensitive humanism of its story.

The hero is an aging Latin American physician who has never paid much attention to political events in his (unidentified) country but prides himself on his longtime career of training doctors to help poverty-stricken rural families.

Learning that many of his former students have abandoned their posts or disappeared, he begins an arduous voyage of discovery into the region's interior. There he encounters a series of new enigmas, accompanied by accounts of "men with guns" pursuing a frightful agenda of their own. This brings him to a new awareness of how political forces affect ordinary lives whether we want them to or not.

Sayles has never been a natural-born filmmaker, and "Men With Guns" often feels more like a photographed screenplay than a truly cinematic work. But its acting is admirable - standouts include Federico Luppi as the physician and Mandy Patinkin as a US tourist - and its mood only grows more engrossing as the story proceeds.

Most important, its integrity as a socially responsible drama is unimpeachable. Excelente!

* Rated R. Contains violence and vulgar language.

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