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January 03, 2005

Hotel Rwanda

2004.USA.George

* * *

Sometimes a film’s subject matter threatens to overpower the quality of its filmmaking. Such is the case with Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda, a harrowing account of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda that saw close to one million of the country’s Tutsi minority killed at the hands of the Hutu majority. Much like Spielberg’s Holocaust film Schindler’s List, to which Hotel Rwanda is being liberally compared (although Polanki’s The Pianist offers a more apt comparison), a negative or lacklustre review of the film’s form threatens to become a defamation of the genocide itself. Therefore, while credit should be given to George and co-screenwriter Keir Pearson for bringing such an important and overlooked episode of recent history to the screen, it should be kept separate from a critical approach to the film. That being said, Hotel Rwanda, despite not being a masterpiece, is a very good film.

Much of the film’s power derives from three key aspects. First, the plot smartly focuses on one main character. Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu, played with awesome restraint by Don Cheadle, is a hotel manager whose various skills, coupled with courage, allow him to save the lives of over a thousand innocent people, while often risking his own, by sheltering them in his hotel. Had the film tried to embrace the entire scope of the Rwandan genocide, its effect would have been diluted. However, because it is primarily the story of Paul, Hotel Rwanda elicits an emotional response from the viewer that contributes vastly to its impact. A result of this is that the actual killing, except during one scene, is kept off-screen. Hotel Rwanda, as its PG-13 rating attests to, is not a visually violent film. Interestingly, this decision, made for whatever reason, results in a tension that is not only horrific in itself, but plays on the viewer’s imagination. George carefully shows us enough to let us know what is going on outside the hotel perimeter without actually showing us the genocide. In a large scale application of the Classical Hollywood method of showing murder as a gun, a gunshot and splatter of blood, and of implying sex through dialogue and cigarettes, Hotel Rwanda implies its massacres. But whereas Classical Hollywood was forced into its actions by a production code, George’s decision is relatively free. It’s not self-censorship, but creativity, succinctness and a respect for the audience. For example, a shot early in the film of a large wooden crate breaking on the floor, spilling hundreds of machetes, is as effective as any gory death scene in any film of last year. But George’s camera doesn’t dwell on it. In fact, the deftness with which George handles the material is superb. He never intrudes or stylizes, but simply records. Hotel Rwanda is not a portfolio piece, as is Joshua Marston’s Maria Full of Grace or even Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. George doesn’t indulge in trick shots, elaborate cinematography or special effects. He lets the story speak for itself.

The minor faults that prevent Hotel Rwanda from being an excellent film result from instances in which George breaks his own rules. A reporter played by Joaquin Phoenix, for example, exists too much as a narrator about the causes of the genocide, and a few scenes suffer due to the intrusion of swelling, melodramatic music. But these are fairly minor quibbles about an otherwise good film.

So see Hotel Rwanda because it is a good film and because of what it is about. Just try not to mix the two up too much.

Note: Interestingly both Terry George and Keir Pearson are Irish, a people often considered the “blacks of Europe”.

19 Comments:

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