Judge Russell Engebretson has concluded that the pen is safer than the sword.
"Sixteen years after he directed Medium Cool, cinematographer Haskell Wexler returns to the cinematic battlefront as a feature film director with Latino, a dramatic story which challenges the American government's official version of its military involvement in Nicaragua."—from the DVD Production Notes.
The year is 1983, four years after the overthrow of the forty-three-year-old Nicaraguan Somoza family dynasty. Eddie Guerrero (Robert Beltran, Star Trek: Voyager) is a Vietnam veteran recruited by the CIA to covertly guide and train the so-called contras, a group of "counter-revolutionaries" composed mainly of the remains of Somoza's thuggish National Guard. Eddie, an old-fashioned if rather naive patriot, does his best to be neutral and professional, but he becomes increasingly uneasy with his fellow military advisor, a man who spouts anti-commie homilies, but who clearly relishes the violence and death inflicted on the peasantry.
Eddie's loyalties are further conflicted when he becomes romantically involved with Marlena (Annette Cardona, Grease), a Nicaraguan living in Honduras who he wants to take with him back to L.A. As a witness to escalating contra-led atrocities, Eddie knows his life has reached a tipping point and he must make some hard choices very soon about his role in the secret, illegal war operation.
The story has all the elements needed for a rousing, suspenseful war drama: romance with a woman who sympathizes with the declared enemy, duty versus moral choice, witness to brutal torture and murder, a running gun battle in a small village, and realistic depiction of guerrilla warfare. The problem is that none of the story elements hang together all that well. The movie is coherent and presents a clear picture of what is going on in post-Somoza Nicaragua, but it does not propel the viewer into the story; it does not, for the most part, create a passionate sense of outrage that should be building throughout the film. There are a few very good scenes which are engaging and disturbing: the torture and attempted brainwashing of a young village boy; the casual rape and murder of peasants suspected of harboring Sandinista rebels; the attack on an unarmed village. However, a few good scenes do not a good movie make.
I don't fault the acting, although it rarely rises above a workman-like level; the understated performances help to reinforce the documentary feel of the movie. Some of the picture's problem lies in the passive character of Eddie Guerrero. Even the most evil actions of the contras seems to induce the merest ripple of guilt across the placid surface of his conscience, so that after a while it's easy to believe that Eddie may be nothing but a surface. About two-thirds of the way through the film, his go-along-to-get-along attitude and reflexive patriotism become maddening. There's no real buildup to his moment of truth. He finally does express his misgivings about American involvement in Nicaragua to his unsympathetic companion, but it's too little and too late.
The editing may contribute to the film's lack of forward momentum. The jumps between locations in Honduras and Nicaragua serve the important romantic subplot, but also defuse the tension of the Nicaraguan scenes. Whatever the reasons for its weaknesses, the film is a noble attempt that boasts a few fine scenes, but on the whole fails. Haskell Wexler is deservedly famous as a cinematographer, with superbly lensed films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Matewan, and In the Heat of the Night among his many accomplishments. As a feature film director, however, he will probably be best remembered for Medium Cool.
The most fascinating aspect of Latino is that it was actually filmed in Nicaragua during the time it portrays. Real villagers and Sandinista fighters were used during the shooting, some of whom had freshly experienced events similar to those depicted in the film. Wexler relates several stories of the hardships endured by the cast and crew during the filming in what was, quite literally, a war zone—a case of genuine guerrilla filmmaking.
Extras include a director's audio commentary, photo gallery, a recent 23-minute interview with Wexler, a trailer, and a written section entitled Production Notes that includes a quick history of the presidential and congressional support of the contras up to the time the movie was completed (so there is no mention of the infamous Iran-Contra scandal of Reagan's administration that came later).
Audio is a lackluster but serviceable Dolby Digital stereo track. The music soundtrack is a dated synthesizer score; although modern and daring in the mid-eighties, the synthesized music sounds hokey and uninspired a quarter century later. One dramatic moment after another is flattened by digital music crescendos, which left me wondering if a more traditional, indigenous Nicaraguan musical score would have heightened the film's emotional impact.
The picture is simply terrible. I've seen worse, but there is no getting around the fact that this is a subpar transfer. The aspect ratio appears to be 1.85:1. Because it's non-anamorphic, the picture is both pillar-boxed and black-barred on a widescreen television. The film is soft and aswarm with dirt specks, scratches, and dust blobs. The color is passable most of the time, but seems to be washed out on a few occasions, and the sometimes overly contrasty picture results in black crush. Possibly some of the contrast and color issues were choices of the filmmaker. Because this is such a bad DVD transfer, it's difficult to say without having seen the film on a theater screen. This movie deserved better.
It might be worth noting that only a year after the release of Latino, Oliver Stone's Salvador hit the theaters. Stone's movie grossed less than a third of its budget, which makes for a good argument that most Americans have little interest in their government's shady foreign interventions—or at least watching films about them. Both of the films are serious depictions of the U.S. government's involvement in terrible conflicts in a pair of South American countries, but Salvador works as a compelling dramatic story, whereas Latino does not. Haskell Wexler's heart was in the right place when he wrote and directed (and self-financed) the film. While Latino is of interest for its history and indictment of U.S. actions in Nicaragua, it's a rather mediocre war drama.
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