Worth A Look: 22.5%
Just Average: 3.75%
Pretty Crappy: 3.75%
5 reviews, 50 user ratings
by Laura Kyle
It was only a decade ago when the lives of one million people were brutally ripped from them in the three-month genocide that still haunts Rwanda today. It seems a lot longer ago however, when a viewer realizes he or she only has a hazy recollection of the tragedy – the event hardly affected the world conscience. I guess after the death toll surpasses the 100,000 mark, us Westerners close our eyes, stick our fingers in our ears, and then watch a movie about it ten years later.If you moved Schindler’s List down South and skipped ahead about fifty years, you’d get a very similar story as Hotel Rwanda. Upscale hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina sheltered over a thousand refugees from the tragic genocide that took hostage over his country.
"A 'must-see' for all the right reasons."
A schism between two Rwandan sects, the Hutu (in power at the time) and the Tutsi (rebels), was essentially sparked by the Belgians (who required these different Rwandan groups to carry identity cards -- imagine if you’re platinum visa card defined you as a human being – suddenly those gold card carriers are "different" than you; well, that’s what we’re talking about here), finally boiled over when the Rwandan president agreed to sign a peace agreement with the Tutsi.
The two warring brigades hardly represented the African people earnestly; Rwandans were mostly fed instructions of hatred by their government or by the rebel Tutsis – whomever their identity card affiliated them with. And one must consider the people were divided up arbitrarily in the first place, and then left to fight–orphan children and the wife of Hutu diplomat Rusesabagina are labeled Tutsi rebels, after all. Hutu and Tutsi appear to only be meaningful terms, in the sense that Hutus don't like Tutsis -- but beyond that, it's difficult to tell!
Rusesabagina underestimates the threat of civil war at first, desperately trying to maintain as much normalcy as possible, assuring friends the radio warnings (rather, propaganda) of the Tutsi uprising shouldn’t be taken seriously. But the sense of dread is still there for the audience, and when the Rwandan president is assassinated and violence breaks out, a gripping first half segues into an even more intense finale, as Rusesabagina evolves into a relentless hero who moviegoers can actually take seriously: this guy is for real.
In the midst of such inhumanity – from the corrupt Hutu government officials and hateful Tutsi rebels in Africa, to the Western nations who only bothered dropping by to pick up their own citizens, to the United Nations, which, by default, had only a handful of peacekeepers in the region, who were later withdrawn – is Rusesabagina and a few other moderate Hutus and Tutsi sympathizers, salvaging over a thousand lives. What could’ve been a severely depressing account of the bleakness of mankind is actually an inspiring one. Maybe it's true, what they said about one man making a difference.
Rusesabagina’s strategy to keep his Hutu friends, while simultaneously hiding those labeled Tutsi, can be compared to that of a politician – he bribes and manipulates left and right, and all this results in a fascinating human drama, with the backdrop of a historical reality the West probably would like to sweep under the rug.
Real sound clips featured in the film echo a shameful past of American history: United States' refusal to label the tragedy as anything more than “acts” of genocide.
And what’s even more disturbing is how unnecessary the genocide really was, and how little it had to do with the actual African people – the nation was divided by a third party (Rwanda was not independent at the time), a continent away. Belgium propped the Tutsis up to power, and then changed it’s mind basically – encouraging them to work with the disenfranchised Hutu, who obviously were by that time, pissed off! And when the tables turned, the Hutu assuming power after Rwanda's independence, a civil war was inevitable.
The one problem Hotel Rwanda has, is writer/director Terry George’s worry that we won’t get the point. When the themes are being excellently communicated in the plot and the performances, a character will then summarize them in a brief little snippet of dialogue, undermining the general realism that's achieved for the majority of the picture.
And George is in such contempt with the Western nations (that hastily put on their rose-colored glasses at the start of the Rwandan crisis and didn’t take them off until the massacre was over) but the facts speak for themselves, and George seemed to forget this at times, refusing to give more than one dimension to anyone but the African victims, Rusesabagina, and those on his side. But however overstated the themes are at times, they are at least themes worthy of being overstated.
In theory, the Hutus were agricultural and short; the Tutsis were cattle-owning and tall, but years after the initial categorizing of the two “classes” – not unlike America being divided up into red states and blue states – it would be fruitless to try and distinguish them, unless your method was just asking.
No one’s looking good. The hatred between two groups who really aren’t that different at all is the stuff of such terrible tragedy, and the East German fueling of it and the world’s indifference to it, is even more frustrating.
The cast is nothing short of brilliant. Don Cheadle is Rusesabagina, and while a moviegoer always expects onscreen perfection from Cheadle, his portrayal of the determined, selfless, and amazingly resourceful, intelligent real-life hero is so incredibly thoughtful, one can’t begin to imagine how Cheadle prepared for the role – he is stoic when the audience is panicked, so when he lets his guard down, there’s an emotional power that he evokes, like no other. Cheadle resists every temptation to abandon his character and put on a show for the Academy.
And Sophie Okonedo, as his wife Tatiana, gives a stunning performance, and simply nails every scene she’s in; it’s impossible not to notice her – her character is not only the backbone of her husband, but a strong, independent individual in her own right. When she chastises Rusesabagina for something most audience members would call martyrdom, we have the revelation that this is not your average “woman behind the scenes.”
Nick Nolte, as an empathetic Colonel sent by the UN, and Joaquin Phoenix, as an American journalist, also give memorable performances.While the power struggle in Rwanda would still incite violence for years to come, as of 2003, the Hutu and Tutsi have at least agreed to the share of power and the government has officially denounced ethnic hatred, due to a new constitution almost unanimously voted for by Rwandans. It’s a first step.
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originally posted: 02/13/05 18:35:52
|OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Toronto Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.