In John Sayles’ “Amigo” God was busy somewhere else

Movie Review
Directed by John Sayles
2010, 128 Minutes, Rated R

In the year 1900, the leader of a tiny Philippine village listens to his Roman Catholic wife tell him that God may deliver the villagers from the misery created by American military occupiers. “God is busy somewhere else,” he replies.

After my movie buddy and I watched the credits to make sure it had a union bug (it did: AFTRA), I asked two different people what they thought of it. Both agreed that it was important for the history of the American occupation that it portrayed. Neither had realized that American imperialism had established itself so early in this important island, but both knew that Americans are still there.

John Sayles, one of America’s most important and progressive independent filmmakers, has done us a service in detailing the day-to-day events in a small village occupied by American troops. He hardly hits us over the head with the anti-imperialist message; the American soldiers are too stupid to hate, but he makes sure we see several of the basic elements of military occupation: racism, torture, murder and betrayal.

The main villains are unseen in the film, as they are in Washington, D.C. The villagers, the surrounding guerrillas, the imported workers and the soldiers are the victims, then and now. One can see the movie as only a history, or one can, as Sayles almost certainly intended, draw parallels between the disaster unfolding on the screen and the larger disasters of modern American invasions and occupations.

It would be wonderful to be able to add that this long film has breathtaking pacing, thrilling romance or characters that will burn themselves into our memories, but it doesn’t. Sayles is a novelist as well as a filmmaker, and may have mixed up the methodology. Perhaps the narrative was too important to clutter it with emotional highs and lows. Or maybe there is just way too much to say about the effects of imperialism for just one movie.