The longer the Nicaraguan civil war (and our own involvement in it) goes on, the muddier the truth gets. Leftists return with tales of truck drivers reading Marx and children reciting poetry; rightists relate horror stories of Soviet-style repression and a populace in fear. Everyone's preaching to the converted.
"Latino," Haskell Wexler's film based on the events in Nicaragua, will do little to clarify the confusion.
It epitomizes propaganda filmmaking at its most self-righteous, schematic and uninvolving.
Wexler's story involves a Hispanic-American Green Beret, Eddie Guerrero (Robert Beltran), a "Latino" who is sent to Honduras as an adviser to the contras. Guerrero starts out as a gung-ho army guy, proud of his uniform, but pretty soon an old woman screaming curses at the contras reminds him of his mother, and a skinny, soulful-eyed Sandinista reminds him of his kid brother, and doubts take hold. By the end, he's not wearing any uniform at all.
Wexler, a highly regarded cinematographer and documentary maker ("Medium Cool"), has shot "Latino" in a documentary style, with a lot of hand-held camera and clear, lifelike lighting. But the look of the movie only underscores how phony the dramatics are. This isn't filmmaking, it's indoctrination. Every image in "Latino" is attached to something outside the movie, intended to express some larger political truth -- the movie is structured as allegory and presented as naturalism.
The contras are all vicious torturers, rapists and murderers who commit their crimes while imperturbable Americans watch on. The Sandinistas are all salt-of-the-earth democrats who freely debate the fate of their cooperative at a town meeting, sing happy songs while they work and say things like "Now that we're landlords, no Somoza contra will take our land from us." Even the kids cheerfully fill each other in on the nuances of the AK47.
After each bit of contra depravity, Wexler cuts to a close-up of the hero; it's a remarkably clumsy way to show someone chewing over the events around him, but more remarkable still is how little registers on Beltran's face. A stiff actor hiding behind a polished smile and narrowed eyes, Beltran appears to be doing an impersonation of Gene Kelly (I kept hoping he'd finish the movie by dancing on Somoza's grave).
The point is not whether you agree with Wexler's politics, but that "Latino" just isn't the way to get that viewpoint across. When Frank Capra was commissioned during World War II to create the "Why We Fight" series, he turned to the Nazi propaganda films and incorporated them into his own -- seeing why they fought, we knew exactly why we fought back. "Latino," with its fatuous simplicity and hyperbolic earnestness, should serve the same purpose for the procontra right. It's so easily ridiculed, you'd think it was commissioned by the CIA.
Latino, opening today at the Key Theatre, is unrated and contains nudity, profanity and violence.