In most of the press releases for John Sayles’ latest film, “Men With Guns”, reference is made to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. While Sayles’ film does portray a “journey of discovery” for a central character, with various physical and philosophical confrontations along the way, the comparison to Conrad may be a little abrupt. Unlike Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”, a film that brilliantly, psychedelically captured the insanity and viciousness of Conrad’s tale, Sayles chooses a deliberate, calm reflection upon the washing away of a traveling man’s naïveté, a tale that shows a character confronting his own ignorance during his descent into chaos.

The deliberate pacing of this Spanish-language film might have made it plodding and overlong, but this is not the case. Sayles has employed an extraordinarily rich group of supporting characters, exploring the moral ambiguities of war without rules in contemporary Latin America. It is a moving, well-crafted work that continues his string of great films.

The protagonist is a Doctor Fuentes (Fredrico Luppi), medicine man for the bourgeois of the “city”, whose self-proclaimed “legacy” was the training of a task force of medical staff that were meant to go into the countryside to bring medicine to the Indians. Taking a holiday to this very countryside against the advice of his land-owning friends in the hopes of a reunion with his group of students, Fuentes learns that his dream and legacy has become severely tarnished. As he is tracing his students’ paths through the forests and mountains of the Latin American wilderness, Fuentes comes to understand the tragic dynamic between white man and Indian, soldier and guerrilla, and even teacher and student.

Along the way, Fuentes is joined by a colourful group of “friends”, allegorical characters who illuminates Sayles’ ideological vision with a particularly masterful touch. From the soldier without a rifle to the priest without faith, each character in turn reflects important aspects of the tragedy of exclusion, hatred, and barbaric imposition of power that the film conveys.

The setting of the film is purposely anonymous, with the story easily reflecting the political realities of the Balkans, central Africa, almost any country in South or Central America, and even the racial inequities of the United States. This anonymity may make the political side of the film somewhat vague or obscure, but it nonetheless speaks with a veracity that speaks to a great number of political and social perplexities. Even the title ambiguously refers to both types of “los hombres armados”, guerrilla and soldier, throughout the film. Collapsing the divide between Army and rebel band, Sayles explores thoughtfully the parallels.

Sayles fills the frame with multiple points of interest, as the background action usually contains some clever tidbit of commentary or symbolism. The sad, sure quiet of the Indian peoples, the distrust of the military, the corruption of the cities and the systemic raping of the land – all these elements are explored visually, thematically and through dialogue. The film is philosophical without being polemic, didactic without being preachy. Like his successful “Lone Star”, Sayles has invested his film with a strong visual style that reflects the fragmented nature of the tale.

“Men With Guns”, subtitled and long, may not be for everyone. It is however an intelligent, well made film that explores racial and political inequities without recourse to stereotypes.