Pay Attention

A married couple no longer young sit on the roof of a luxury hotel, palm trees swaying in the tropical breeze. By candlelight, over a beer, the husband reveals that shortly after meeting his wife he had bribed her boss to transfer her to a job near him: "So I could marry you." Joking about the amount of the bribe, they kiss.

The only jarring note is the chatter of machine guns in the background. This is Kigali, Rwanda, in May or June of 1994. And outside the hotel gates, Hutu militias armed with guns and machetes have started the genocide that because of the world's inaction left between 800,000 and one million ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutu dead.

But this scene is not a mistake. It's been carefully staged by the husband, Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), the elegant manager of the hotel, so he can tell his wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo) how he wants her and their four children to die. Paul is Hutu, his wife Tutsi. And seeking refuge in the hotel are 1,200 more Tutsis. Paul is trying to keep the militias at bay, but if he fails, he wants his family to jump off the roof rather than watch each other be raped and hacked to pieces.

This strange doubleness - candlelight, mass murder - reflects the startling depth of "Hotel Rwanda," which you will miss if you look for the usual ingredients. The world knows that Mr. Rusesabagina succeeded, so there isn't much suspense. None of the killing occurs on camera (except for some grainy news footage), so there isn't much violence. And while director Terry George makes clear the moral failure of the US, the UN, and the West in general, there isn't much politics, either.

Instead, "Hotel Rwanda" achieves something almost never seen in the movies: a serious portrait of a good man. Paul loves his family and is brave - in Hollywood this would be more than enough to make him the good guy. But this film does more. It emphasizes Paul's mental qualities. He is no intellectual, just a hotel manager. But he is alert, attentive, self-controlled, swift to read people and manipulate them (through cunning if necessary), and above all, cool in the face of danger. He is what the ancient Greeks called sophron.

In the same vein, there is a classical resonance to the fact that Paul in the hospitality business. Hospitality meant far more to the ancient Greeks than it does to us. In Homer, it means not just being nice to people but showing them how rich and powerful you are, placing them in your debt through good treatment and fine gifts, and finally being in a position to call in your chips.

This is precisely what happens in the escalating scenes between Paul and the Hutu general Augustin Bizimungo (Fana Mokoena), which alone are worth double the price of admission. Smoothly and convincingly, Cheadle's Paul goes from being the kind of host who knows what everybody is drinking to being the kind of hero who knows what every fearful moment requires. Against such a hideous backdrop, this is a beautiful thing to watch.

January 16, 2005 1:10 AM |

Categories:

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