Mark Reviews Movies


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Terry George

Cast: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte, Cara Seymour, Joaquin Phoenix, Desmond Dube, Antonio David Lyons, Mothusi Magano

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for violence, disturbing images and brief strong language)

Running Time: 2:01

Release Date: 12/22/04 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik

During the course of one hundred days in 1994, at least 800,000 people were butchered in Rwanda. The Western world did nothing; they did not even stop to watch. The fact that Belgian occupants established the entire social separation of the Rwandan people that helped incite the massacre in the first place simply adds to an already incredibly shameful situation. While the outside world debates the difference between "genocide" and "acts of genocide," people are dying for no reason. When Hotel Rwanda focuses on these cold truths in addition to its harrowing account of the genocide, it achieves an incendiary level of power that has the ability to simultaneously anger and shock. Co-writer and director Terry George manages to convey the layers of senselessness of these events, adding weight to an already emotional story. It is in times of such excruciating strife that the true nature of a man reveals itself, and although the radical forces within the country and the indifferent leaders outside its borders point to a darker side, light emerges in acts of selflessness. Amidst the horror, one man decides to act in a simple but profound way—he gives them shelter.

The man is Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), the manager of the Hotel Mille Collines in the capital city of Kigali. He spends his days arranging favors for people in power and getting supplies to satisfy his prominent guests. He sees all of this as potential collateral to be used in dangerous times for his wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo) and children. As the tension between the two major groups in Rwanda, the Hutus and the Tutsis, Paul sees even more reason to hold on to this security, and soon enough, Hutu militants begin the systematic murder of the Tutsi minority in response to the death of the republic's president, whose death was supposedly perpetrated by Tutsi rebels. Paul is Hutu; his wife is Tutsi. Upon arriving home when the fighting begins, Paul finds their house overrun with his Tutsi neighbors, who think Paul is the only Hutu they can trust. Soon, Hutu military personnel find the refugees in Paul's house, and after some intense bargaining, he manages to bring them all to the hotel, where they can stay until United Nations peacekeepers in the area under the command of Col. Oliver (Nick Nolte) can arrange their safe passage.

After very little setup (enough to observe the tension and establish its central character), the film throws us almost instantly into the turmoil. We witness Hutu forces beat and arrest of one of the Rusesabaginas' neighbors, and as Paul travels throughout the city, radio propaganda blasts out messages of hate toward the Tutsis. At a certain point, one begins to wonder how all of this hatred arose; we don't understand what's happening. Later, the press arrives, and a photographer named Jack (Joaquin Phoenix) doesn't understand it either. A man at the bar in the hotel explains it to him. When the Belgians where occupying Rwanda, they arbitrarily divided the population by certain physical features. Those who were taller, had paler skin, and thinner noses ("whiter" in their eyes) were the Tutsis; the rest were Hutus. The Tutsis were the upper class in the eyes of the Belgians and were treated far better than the Hutus. When Rwanda gained its independence, though, Belgium left the Hutus in power; there has been a power struggle since. Knowing the origin of the difference is one thing, but now we understand the hatred even less. That degree and depth of hatred is just too incomprehensible.

George keeps the actions of this hatred off-screen, portraying very little violence, but images of the aftermath are overwhelming. After the killing begins, Paul discovers that his son is missing, and after searching for him, he finds him covered in blood hidden in the bushes. The blood is not his, leaving us only to imagine what the boy—now perpetually traumatized—has witnessed. In one moment, though, George does give us a distant view of militants hacking at people with machetes, after Jack returns from a short distance from the hotel. Paul is convinced this footage will send the needed help, but Jack responds, "If people see this footage, they'll say, 'Oh my God, that's horrible,' and then go on eating their dinners." Along similar lines, Col. Oliver tells him the West has essentially labeled him and his countrymen "dirt," telling him frankly that no one is coming. With no outside aid, the decimation continues, leading to the film's most haunting scene, as Paul discovers a road littered with corpses. This leads to a staggering moment when the frustration of wrongly tying a tie turns into Paul's emotional breakdown and is one of many moments that solidify Don Cheadle's moving portrayal.

Equally affecting is a scene atop the roof of the hotel, as Paul reveals a surprise dinner for his wife. Against the background noise of gunfire, Paul begs that, if it comes down to it, she bring her children up to the roof and jump. He perceives suicide as a better death than one under the blade of a machete. It's an upsetting scene, but later its impact is lessened in its use as the setup to a sequence of suspense where Paul and we wonder if she's kept her promise. A good deal of the final act falters to similar circumstances, most notably during a scene in which a UN transport convey carrying refugees is attacked. Paul's helplessness as he listens to a radio announcer urging people to stop the trucks is effective, but the scene itself feels too much like an unnecessary attempt to draw out tension. The climax suffers similarly under a situation akin to the earlier sequence.

These scenes lessen Hotel Rwanda's craft, but they do not affect its ultimate impact. As a reminder or eye-opener (depending on your knowledge of the subject matter) of a horrific moment in modern history and an introduction to a selfless hero who saved over 1,200 lives, the film succeeds with blistering effect. And it serves as a warning. People are apt to talk about not letting another Holocaust happen—not in our time. Think about that, and remember that this happened only ten years ago.

Copyright © 2004 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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