The evil that men do not only lives after them, it often dwarfs our puny attempts to do good in the world, mocking the very notion of a shared humanity. Who has not felt as Kurtz did in “Heart of Darkness,” whispering “The horror, the horror” when confronted with yet another unimaginable nightmare man has perpetrated on man.
Africa was the setting for Joseph Conrad’s novella, and Africa has had more than its share of these horrors inflicted upon it. None was more savage and terrifying than the situation in Rwanda in 1994, when in a mere 100 days more than 800,000 of that country’s citizens were slaughtered over ethnic differences by their erstwhile friends and neighbors while the world looked away and decided it didn’t want to meddle in family arguments.
It was very brave of co-writer (with Keir Pearson) and director Terry George to have made “Hotel Rwanda,” a film about these horrific events. The story it tells is such a wrenching one it cannot help but move us, especially when the performance of a lifetime by Don Cheadle is added to the mix.
Yet if what happened in Rwanda is a great tragedy, it has not called forth a similarly great film. It is painful to have to say this: Making any film at all about this kind of subject matter could not be more difficult, and “Hotel Rwanda” is certainly an earnest, sincere, well-intentioned work. But partly by choice of focus, partly by weakness of execution, it is also a film that does not do the situation as much justice as we would have hoped for.
One of the ways filmmakers have traditionally tried to make unpleasant scenarios more palatable to audiences is by changing the focus from the awfulness of events to individual acts of bravery, from the complicity of the many to the heroism of the few. “Hotel Rwanda” saw the opportunity to take this path and did not hesitate.
When Paul Rusesabagina (Cheadle, whose commitment to the role is palpable) is introduced in 1994, he is the manager of the European-owned Hotel des Mille Collines, the No. 1 establishment in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. He believes in personal style and in keeping everyone in power happy, storing up favors for a rainy day. As a conveniently dramatic clap of thunder tells us, that evil day is coming soon.
For though Paul, a member of the majority Hutu tribe married to a minority Tutsi (“Dirty Pretty Things’ ” excellent Sophie Okonedo) doesn’t like to think about it, Hutu extremists are using savagely racist radio broadcasts to lay the groundwork for mass murders of “Tutsi cockroaches.” After a U.N.-brokered cease-fire between the Hutu government and Tutsi rebels is smashed by the suspicious death of the president, the killing begins.
“Hotel Rwanda’s” strength is its refusal to stint on the horrors and atrocities, in being unafraid to show us a vivid picture of the blood lust that gripped that country seemingly out of nowhere. The film is also good at depicting the impotence of the U.N. and its frustrated Col. Oliver (Nick Nolte) at having to be “peacekeepers, not peacemakers.”
But though Paul Rusesabagina was a genuine hero, ultimately sheltering more than 1,200 refugees inside his hotel, focusing on a hero gives the audience an out it perhaps should not have, allowing viewers to think about the comforting triumph of the human spirit more than the terrible human cost.
The result is an odd hybrid, an audience-friendly atrocity film that won people’s choice awards at both the Toronto and the recent Los Angeles film festivals.
It’s interesting to contrast “Hotel Rwanda” with another just-completed film on the 1994 situation, “Sometime in April,” written and directed by Raoul Peck for HBO and due on the service early next year.
Though Peck (who last did the exceptional “Lumumba”) also shows us Rwanda through the eyes of its good citizens, their powerlessness in the face of this overwhelming evil and their difficulty moving on when normalcy is restored give the film a disturbing complexity and an air of haunted sadness that is inexpressibly powerful.
To be fair to the concept of the hero in a holocaust, it certainly worked for Steven Spielberg with “Schindler’s List.” But Spielberg was an experienced master director when he made that film, while George has been best known as a writer (“In the Name of the Father,” “The Boxer”) who’s worked closely with director Jim Sheridan.
Whether it’s because of his lack of experience or the urgent need he felt to make his message crystal clear, George has fashioned a film that is broadly done and too much on the nose in its dialogue and situations. A finer, more subtle hand, one that could have resisted the plot’s more heavy-handed elements, would have been welcome.
What we get instead is a film that uses the comfort of the predictable to make horror palatable to a wider audience. While the argument could be made that any technique that makes viewers willing to experience a film about Rwanda is a good thing, questions remain. If we don’t remember pitilessly, how can we never forget? If we make horror easier to deal with, will we try hard enough to stop it the next time it occurs? For if what happened in Rwanda teaches us anything, it is that there will always be a next time.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and brief strong language
Times guidelines: Graphic massacre footage
Don Cheadle ... Paul
Sophie Okonedo ... Tatiana
Joaquin Phoenix ... Jack
Nick Nolte ... Col. Oliver
United Artists presents in association with Lions Gate Entertainment, released by MGM. Director Terry George. Producers A. Kitman Ho, Terry George. Executive producers Hal Sadoff, Martin F. Katz, Duncan Reid, Sam Bhembe, Roberto Cicutto, Francesco Melzi D’Eril. Screenplay Keir Pearson & Terry George. Cinematographer Terry Fraisse. Editor Naomi Geraghty. Costumes Ruy Filipe. Music Andrea Guerra, Rupert Gregson-Williams, Afro Celt Sound System. Production design Tony Burrough, Johnny Breedt. Art director Emma MacDevitt. Set decorator Estelle “Flo” Ballack. Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute.
In limited release.