Saturday, July 9, 2011

Amigo - A Piece of History in an Almost Forgotten Era

In 1900, the small village of San Isidro was invaded by a tenderfoot battalion of young American soldiers headed by Lt. Compton (Garret Dillahunt). They freed Spanish friar Padre Hidalgo (Yul Vazquez) who’s been held under the care of Rafael Dacanay (Joel Torre), cabeza of the barrio. The American forces pursue the revolutionary troops of Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo, but Compton’s conciliatory tack is to “win hearts and minds” instead. “We’ll pay for every item or service that you provide to us,” informs the leader.

But the colonizers soon make the life of the local folks difficult that even the cabeza, a land owner himself, has to plough his own land. People’s mobility is restrained. They are not allowed to stray far from designated demarcations. Joaquin, Rafael’s son, escapes and joins his uncle Simon (Ronnie Lazaro), a revolutionary. Martial Law is declared, and farming animals are butchered. God is indeed busy elsewhere.

At one point, Rafael is caught leaving his boundaries (he is taken to the hills by the revolutionary soldiers asking for a couple of things: 10 cavans of rice and a treacherous decoy). As punishment, he gets imprisoned by the Americans. This necessitates selection of a new cabeza. The principles of freedom-loving America rest on the concept of the democratic process. So an election is held. To the consternation of the invaders, Rafael once again wins. He is freed to lead his wards.

Soon thereafter, the town falls into a state of harmony. Relationships are built, and even romance blooms between soldiers and the local girls. But peace and harmony don’t always constitute the real motivations of the Americans. When Col. Hardacre (Chris Cooper) surprises San Isidro with a visit, he isn’t amused with the post-Fiesta countenance and the laidback demeanor of its inhabitants. In his mind, they are in a state of war, and barrios are being attacked and plundered. Soon thereafter, Rafael Dacanay is re-arrested, charging fast into events that would escalate into a bloody encounter. The cabeza is forced to spill the whereabouts of the guerilla soldiers. What becomes of his brother and his son? And more importantly, will Dacanay free himself from an impending execution?

Joel Torre resurfaces as one of the country’s most insightful actors. His “Amigo” persona is imposing without being arrogant; congenial without being cloying, and Rio Locsin beautifully complements the cabeza’s cordial demeanor. Garret Dillahunt’s Compton perfectly straddles his conflicted persona: is he the tough “warlord” or the gentle savior? Yul Vazquez’s Padre Hidalgo is such a joy to watch, one of my favorite performances from this spectacular ensemble.

There are a few sore points though: John Arcilla’s Nenong is too caricaturish. His betraying persona would have been more sinister with a little more subtlety. Ditto with Irma Adlawan (as Nenong’s wife Josefa) who, in her limited screen time, churns out an over eager characterization. This has been a habit borne out of theatrical crutches. On celluloid, Adlawan tends to evince ripples in the water when there should only be a reflection. Lee Meily’s camera work is like a breath of fresh air, crystal and in some ways affectionate. Had they decided against the use of the digital medium, cinematography would have turned out even better.

Chris Cooper is mean-spirited Col. Hardacre.

And no, Kyle, this isn’t a worthy companion piece to the amateurish “Baler” (2008), another historical film set at the end of the Spanish occupation in a little town in Aurora. I cringe remembering the emotionally hollow exposition, fake mustache, iffy production values and maladroit Spanish lines and delivery. “Amigo” is too polished and insightful for the unfair comparison.

Told in intimate narrative strokes, Director John Sayles carefully sculpts a town filled with distinct personalities, adequately fleshed out in modicums of amusing anecdotes. The character studies delve into human emotions ingrained in the cultural mores that run a small town. What’s even more interesting is how Sayles is able to capture the Filipino spirit as a community; how Sayles ensnares the gist of a captured spirit. And when a film master like Sayles is able to bridge his vision into something very Filipino, I am simply in awe!

Ronnie Lazaro is Simon.

Master film director John Sayles

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