In 1994, nearly 1 million people were systematically slaughtered in the small African country of Rwanda while no nation (including our own) intervened to end the madness. A film that invites comparisons (both in theme and accomplishment) to Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List," "Hotel Rwanda" is a stunning depiction of genocide and racism that will rightly leave no viewer unaffected. Recently nominated for three Academy Awards (best actor, best supporting actress and best original screenplay), the movie is now playing in Jackson area theaters.
Though "Hotel Rwanda" will probably flow a little better for those familiar with its events, a series of title cards at the film's opening and closing provide some context. Prior to the massacres, two major ethnic groups existed in Rwanda: the Hutus, comprising about 85 percent of the population, and the Tutsis, representing the other 15 percent. The groups, artificially divided by Belgium during colonization in the 1950s, had a long history of power struggle. After the proposition of a new transitional government that gave a guerilla Tutsi group a share of political power, Hutu extremists opposed to the plan shot down a plane carrying the Rwandan president and began acts of ethnic cleansing aimed at wiping out the Tutsi.
"Hotel Rwanda" is the true story of Paul Rusesabagina (Oscar nominee Don Cheadle, "Traffic"), a hotel manager who provided shelter to over a thousand Tutsi refugees during the slaughter. Though Paul himself is not a target of the violence, being a Hutu, his wife Tatiana (Oscar nominee Sophie Okonedo, "Dirty Pretty Things") and children are Tutsis. To "buy" the lives of his family and their Tutsi friends, Paul empties his hotel safe and houses the refugees in some of the hotel's rooms. As the atrocity escalates, Paul risks his own life by taking in hundreds more Tutsis, and his establishment becomes a safe haven as the streets fill with blood. His efforts are aided by Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte), a U.N. peacekeeping officer who defies his superiors' indifference to the genocide.
The performances bring the wrenching emotion and pain endured by the Rwandans into frightening focus. Gifted character actor Cheadle, finally being given the respect owed to him this awards season, is simply astonishing, as is Okonedo, whose nomination was something of a surprise (but richly deserved). The scores of extras used in the film are also impressive, and the shooting location (South Africa) provides authenticity.
The first significant directorial effort by screenwriter Terry George, "Hotel Rwanda" is actually quite reserved in its depictions of violence, which earned the film only a PG-13 rating. George uses primarily suspense, and the sympathy for his characters that the screenplay elicits, to communicate the tragedy of the massacres. Though this is certainly an intense, emotionally devastating picture, only a few moments show truly graphic images. It would have been completely reasonable for the film to be far more explicit, which might have served George's purposes even better (critics disagree over whether the lack of violence helps the story or hinders it), but there is perhaps something of significance in the filmmakers' decision to be more reticent about what they depict than the producers of the evening news.
A sweeping account of tragedy, the ultimately uplifting "Hotel Rwanda" is one of last year's most impressive achievements, an experience that lingers long after the scroll of the end credits. One could even argue that it was robbed of a place among the best picture nominees. (It is certainly better than the grotesquely overrated "Ray.")
George's film, with its deep emotional undercurrent, powerful performances, and "how could this happen?" dramatizations, towers above almost anything you'll find in theaters right now.
Terry George, director
**** (out of five)