As a serious, sometimes self-conscious moviegoer I encounter both complex films and films that give me a complex. Hotel Rwanda-which has garnered nominations for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Screenplay, as well as lots of critical acclaim-is one of the latter. What does it say about me, I wonder, that I didn't leave the theater moved to tears and praise?
It certainly wasn't the subject matter that left me cold. The film is set against the backdrop of the 1994 Rwandan conflict, when 800,000 people were slain in 100 days' time. Most of the dead were Tutsi, and the killers were vengeful Hutus incited by radio propaganda, the assassination of their president and years of resentment under Belgian colonial rule during the first half of the 20th century.
The horror of the situation in that country was lost on many Westerners at the time, a point that Hotel Rwanda is eager to make. Unfortunately, the horror as reenacted may also be lost on audiences. The film follows its central character, Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), so exclusively that it becomes a character study, a drama on the scale of one person, not of a genocide. Even in a scene where Paul, a manager at an expensive Belgian-owned hotel, finds himself unable to drive down a road because it's lined with dead bodies, the camera barely leaves his face-it's his story, not his country's.
Of course, if we were to see those machetes, brandished almost harmlessly on the edges of this film, actually in use, most of us couldn't stomach five minutes. A true picture of the Rwandan genocide would play in only a handful of theaters. Still, I can't help but think of City of God, set in Brazil's drug-ruled favelas. For all the MTV-style camerawork and editing cited by some as undermining its intent, the film maintained a visceral impact not easily shaken. City of God, also based on real-life senseless violence, was a masterpiece of filmmaking-stylistically seamless, concentrated and solidly acted by all. And whether you appreciate the challenge it poses, it is challenging.
Hotel Rwanda, by contrast, feels wrongly, disappointingly, mainstream. If the film has any immediate impact, not to mention lasting value, it's thanks to Don Cheadle. Yet it's also the emphasis on his character that limits the film. It feels like all the other actors know their parts are bit parts, and that's how they play them. Joaquin Phoenix does an imitation-not a good one-of a conscientious journalist, while Nick Nolte stumbles wheezingly onto the scene and gives the impression that he's learned his lines just moments before. There's an earnest Red Cross worker, a turncoat staff member with bling-bling ambitions, a dormouse of a right-hand man, and Sophie Okonedo in an overrated performance as Paul's wife. All of them struggle along beneath the flattest lighting imaginable and on film stock better suited to the "making of" bonus feature on a DVD.
Paul Rusesabagina of the Hotel Milles Collines saved lives by bartering, bargaining and prevaricating. As the diplomats he served at the hotel pulled out of the country, leaving him and others at the mercy of their neighbors, he was forced to become a diplomat himself. His story is worth telling, so it's worth telling well.
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