Carla's Song

Robert Carlyle in Carla's Song

Surprisingly few films have been made about the Nicaraguan Revolution, but the handful that have (save for the propaganda-driven Last Flight Out) tend to zero in on the same point: the U.S. government's involvement in the conflict was an appalling bit of political intervention that had a terribly high price. Whatever you may think of the Sandinistas or the Contras or the Reagan administration, it's hard to escape the fact that the American government eagerly threw its support behind a group of soldiers who tortured civilians, targeted health care clinics, raped women and executed children. It's been suggested that the CIA not only turned a blind eye to these tactics, but encouraged them... all in the name of “fighting Communism.”

Ken Loach's Nicaraguan drama Carla's Song isn't quite as detailed in its portrait of Nicaragua's political climate as Roger Spottiswoode's Under Fire or as passionate in its condemnation of America's politically-motivated intervention in (a different part of) South America as Oliver Stone's Salvador, but it succeeds by examining the situation from a unique, intimate point-of-view. The two aforementioned films were about American journalists who go looking for the truth and find it. This one is about an ordinary Scottish guy who thinks he's in a romantic comedy until he realizes that he's wandered into a bleak, complex docudrama that he doesn't really understand.

The Scottish guy is George Lennox (Robert Carlyle, Trainspotting), a genial bus driver who obsesses over a Nicaraguan immigrant named Carla (Oyanka Cabezas). He repeatedly attempts to persuade her to go on a date with him, but she always refuses or finds a way to brush him off. She runs off when he looks away, she gives him a fake number, she tells him she's late for something, but he always finds her. Eventually, George learns that Carla is suffering from serious depression: she's struggling to cope with a tragedy in her past, and at one point she even attempts to commit suicide. She's also uncertain of how her family is faring, but lacks the money to return to her home country. Desperate to prove his love to Carla, George offers to take her back to Nicaragua and help her find her family.

Alas, the year in 1987, and country is still torn apart by civil war. It's a dangerous place for anyone, but particularly for a foreigner who doesn't know the land and doesn't speak the language. George and Carla receive some much-needed assistance from Bradley (Scott Glenn, The Silence of the Lambs), an ex-CIA operative who has gone rogue and now supports the Sandinistas. Soon, the tale transforms into a procedural of sorts, as these three unlikely companions attempt to find Carla's missing friends and family members.

Carlyle has such expressive eyes, and Loach takes full advantage of them. The arc of Carla's Song can be seen in George's face – the way he shifts from puppy-dog earnestness to confusion to horror. He says less and less as the film proceeds, but his eyes say more and more. Still, I'm not sure that his slightly troubling obsession with Carla is ever explained sufficiently – and it seems like a plot device as a result. Carla remains an enigma for much of the film's running time, as the film keeps us in the dark about the specifics of her trauma until very late in the movie. Even so, Cabezas (an unknown actress who has never appeared in another film) delivers a nuanced performance as a good-hearted woman missing a piece of her soul. The best performance comes from Glenn, essaying a man embittered by the fact that his country asked him to sacrifice his humanity. He's seen it all, and he speaks hard truths with the weariness of a man who has lost the ability to be shocked by anything.

As with all Loach films, Carla's Song is a loose, naturalistic affair. There are a lot of moments that feel improvised, and plenty of “throwaway” shots that serve to immerse us in the atmosphere. He spends a good deal of time in both Glasgow and Nicaragua, and one of the most intriguing things about the film is the way it underlines the common elements found in two very different parts of the world. The handheld camerawork is unobtrusive, George Fenton's score never pushes too hard in one direction or another (he supplies jangly guitars for Glasgow and fluttering woodwinds for Nicaragua) and there's almost nothing in the film that could be described as “stylized.” The storytelling avoids screenwriting conventions, working its way towards the sort of complicated happy ending commonly found in life but infrequently seen in movies. Loach rarely reminds his viewers that they're watching a film – he wants them to feel they're watching the world.

Note: Loach made the film in 1996, but released a “director's cut” of the movie in 2005 (it's the only cut featured on this Blu-ray release). Unlike the majority of director's cuts, this one is actually shorter than the original. Loach felt that his 127-minute film had too much needless padding, so he trimmed scenes he deemed unnecessary and turned in a tighter, leaner 111-minute cut. The result is a film that has a greater sense of urgency and purpose – it's not quite a thriller, but it's no longer a shambling political travelogue. It's still not one of the best films of Loach's career (it has a bad habit of telling rather than showing), but kudos to the director for demonstrating such uncommon self-awareness.

Carla's Song

Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 111 minutes
elease Year: 1996