The music is stunningly good, derived from folk music of the Andes (which you often hear played by subway musicians in New York). The score is low-key but gets under your skin, as does the film.
Federico Luppi plays a doctor whose life's work has been to train doctors to work with the natives in the mountains of a fictional but all too recognizable country somewhere in Central or South America. Luppi performs the role with a complex mix of privilege and impatience entirely apt for such socially stratified situations. I consider Luppi one of the greatest actors in contemporary cinema; he has been strangely overlooked, although Spanish cinema is going through an encouraging resurgence. He is the Mastroianni of the Hispanic world, and thank John Sayles for bringing him to our attention.
One of the reasons Spanish films have such a tough time breaking into the American market is their acting style. It tends toward the melodramatic, still, at a time when most Hollywood styles - and even independents - use actors with a low-key, self-reflexive, even ironic air. Sayles has modulated the performances admirably. Dan Rivera Gonzalez plays an orphaned boy with gutsy humor and savvy, in a performance that rejects any pity for the character. Likewise, Damian Alcazar plays a fallen priest with a sense of tragic inspiration tangled up in the paradox of having fled an execution. As characters attach themselves to the doctor, the dynamics become very amusing, very unpredictable.
The first twenty minutes of the film could easily be cut. We don't need to know that the doctor is in mourning and has a daughter with a vapid, socially irresponsible boyfriend. The real story is in the doctor's search for his former students, who have all 'disappeared' because education and medical knowledge is considered dangerous by the no-neck, ignorant, fascist - need I say more - military running the country. The rebels aren't much better.
Helping the peasants is not something even the peasants want to
do, so the quest seems futile - but it offers all of us an
unforgettable vision of people worth educating, liberating, and
otherwise helping. I'm glad John Sayles has a conscience. His lack
of self-centered auteurism sets him apart in a rather silly world.
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