Written, directed and edited by John Sayles
Produced by R. Paul Miller and Maggie Renzi
Music by Mason Daring
Photography by Slawomir Idziak
Federico José Luppi: Dr. Humberto Fuentes
Dan Rivera Gonzalez: Conejo (the boy)
Damián Delgado: Domingo (the deserter)
Damián Alcaraz: Padre Portillo (the priest)
Tania Cruz: Graziela (the mute woman)
Iguanditi López: Mayan mother, storyteller
Nandi Luna: her daughter
Mandy Patinkin and Kathryn Grody: U.S. tourists
A Mayan woman talks to her daughter about a doctor in the city who is coming to visit them.
“City people don’t get sick the way we do.”
Dr. Fuentes talks to a patient (a military officer) while doing a prostate exam.
The officer (general?) says: “The reds make up these stories and the people believe them. It
makes our job even harder.”
The doctor’s wife has recently died.
Fuentes has lunch at a restaurant with his daughter and daughter’s fiancé.
Fuentes defends the Alliance for Progress, while the fiancé ridicules it.
Fuentes says he wants to visit his former students in the countryside.
He had trained them (apparently with Alliance for Progress funds) to work with rural
The fiancé is blatantly racist about the indigenous people.
He says the more you do for them, the lazier they get.
When he returns to his office, two wealthy women patients say he does not look well.
Fuentes sees a man carrying a TV box.
In his Mercedes, he follows the bus the man boards.
(The camera shows two boys sparring in a city dump. The camera pans over the dump.)
It is a former student, Bravo.
Fuentes thought Bravo was in the mountains providing medical care to Indians.
Bravo is bitter and speaks condescendingly to Fuentes.
Bravo now operates a black market pharmaceutical ring.
When Fuentes asks why he is not in the countryside practicing medicine, the man says he
should go see Cienfuegos, who has the whole story.
Fuentes examines himself, looking worried.
Fuentes begins his trip to the countryside in a Jeep SUV.
He stops to ask a man where he is.
The man will not tell him where he is. He says only that the people there are “salt people.”
In a café, a US couple asks him about local ruins.
He says he has never been here before.
The husband wants to know about “atrocidados.”
The wife translates: “problems in the area?”
Fuentes says there are no such problems in this country.
Wife says there are stories in New York about murders.
The husband wants to know why there are no fajitas at the café.
“What’s the Spanish for fajita?” he asks.
Fuentes passes sugar cane fields being set on fire.
He passes a sugar cane harvest.
Fuentes asks directions to Rio Seco [Dry River].
A man points behind the doctor.
There is no road, just a path through the cane fields.
When he gets there, he asks women for Dr. Cienfuegos.
They walk away.
He asks others. They do the same, closing doors behind them.
A woman finally talks to him. She asks, “Who are you?”
He says he is a doctor.
She says, “That’s good ’cause the last one died.”
He asks how.
“They killed him. Men with guns.”
She is blind, but she says, “But I know everything that happens here. They made everyone
witness. Even me. The doctor and three others….”
Fuentes: “Somebody shot them?”
“No. They burned them with gasoline…. They cooked them all.”
“Because they had guns and we didn’t.”
“But why Cienfuegos? Why the doctor?”
“They didn’t like him.”
Why would she talk to him when the others wouldn’t?
“It doesn’t matter if I die. They’ve killed all my children.”
Were the killers white or Indian?
“When an Indian puts on a uniform, he becomes white.”
Compare the Salvadoran novel, Manlio Argueta, One Day of Life.
The woman says, “Cienfuegos wasn’t a good doctor…. So many of his patients are dead.”
She laughs uproariously at her “joke.”
When Fuentes gets back to his car, it has been ransacked. His camera has been stolen.
He runs into the same US tourists.
Other American tourists sit by a pool.
One reads from a travel brochure about Bali, a place of peace and pleasure.
Fuentes visits the police to report the murder of Cienfuegos.
He announces his intention to visit another village.
He is advised against it. “I can’t guarantee your safety,” says the officer.
The officer asks for his identification, to make sure he really is a doctor, not a journalist.
“We’ve had problems with journalists up there. They go up to take pictures, then they
disappear. And I get blamed for it.”
“I won’t take any pictures. They stole my camera.”
Fuentes’ hubcaps are stolen in front of the police station.
Fuentes goes to the next village. Again, he has to walk from the road.
He asks for Dr. Arenas. Again, people turn away from him.
A woman brings her child to him.
Fuentes: “The child isn’t sick. It’s malnutrition and thirst… What do you feed her? She
needs solid food, like corn.”
The mother: “There is no corn. Only coffee.”
A boy (Conejo) says Dr. Arenas is gone. The army took him to “the school.”
The boy says he will show him the way to the school for two reales.
The boy is an orphan, living on his own.
The destination is a place with human remains strewn about.
Fuentes: “Why were they killed?”
Boy: “Because the army was mad at them.”
Fuentes: “They didn’t even bury them.”
Boy: “To make an example.”
Fuentes: “Why did they kill Dr. Arenas?”
Boy: “Because he was a doctor.”
Fuentes: “People should know about this.”
Boy: “Everybody knows.”
Fuentes heads for Caras Sucias [Dirty Faces].
The boy says he knows where the doctor can sleep for the night.
It is a former school, used as a prison and torture chamber.
The boy had been brought there to be “educated.”
Boy: The soldiers were all Indians, but the commander acted like he was white.
Fuentes: “From where?”
Boy: “Not from here. They never send you to your own region.”
Again, compare with One Day of Life.
Fuentes notices straps.
Boy: “They took your friend’s tools after his ‘education’ and used them to make people talk.”
The Mayan mother and daughter from the opening scene….
The mother tells of a boy whose mother won’t look at him. (He is obviously the result of a
rape by soldiers.)
Next morning….
The village of Caras Sucias has been destroyed, its residents murdered.
When Fuentes and the boy get back to his car, its wheels have been stolen.
A Coca Cola truck passes but doesn’t stop.
A man approaches. The boy says it’s a soldier. The man robs them.
Later the soldier returns in a car. He is bleeding.
He has the wheels to Fuentes’ car.
He is a deserter named Domingo.
Fuentes patches him up.
The deserter forces them to drive him somewhere, undisclosed.
That night, Fuentes discovers that the soldier’s pistol is not loaded.
They stop in a town for supplies.
At the market, Fuentes sees a man selling surgical equipment.
Through the deserter as interpreter, he asks for directions to the local doctor’s office.
When he gets there, he finds it being used as a barbershop.
The barber says the Dr. DeSoto has passed away.
Fuentes asks how DeSoto died.
The barber: “The guerrillas murdered him” because he treated wounded soldiers.
When the guerrillas returned after the soldiers left, they “punished the people who had
helped the army.”
Fuentes asks what would have happened if the doctor had refused to treat the soldiers.
Man in chair: Nobody refuses the men with guns.
Barber: “They killed him to make an example.”
It is unlikely that the guerrillas would have killed DeSoto just for patching up wounded military
personnel. The guerrillas did kill people, of course, but they would not kill professional people
who performed such an important service for the villagers and the guerrillas.
The deserter and boy wait for Fuentes.
The deserter has purchased three bullets.
They drive on.
Deserter: “The rich use the army to push the Indians off the good land so they’ll starve to
death. So the Indians go pick their coffee. And they come back with their pitiful wages and
those leeches suck them dry.”
Compare with I, Rigoberta Menchú.
They approach a man on the road, begging them to stop.
The deserter says not to stop.
The doctor does anyway. He picks up the hitchhiker.
The hitchhiker is a former priest, known as “the ghost.”
He says he tried to teach the people through the theater [a common practice of priests in
Central America], but he was a terrible actor. And he lost his faith.
Fuentes: “That’s a shame. A man should believe in something.”
Hitchhiker: “Are you religious?”
Fuentes: “No. I’m a doctor, a scientist. I only believe in progress.”
Fuentes and the ex-priest discuss their failures.
Fuentes: “We both ended up … a total failure.”
Priest: “You can’t feel responsible for those students.”
Fuentes: “I should have warned them.”
Priest: “If you didn’t know what the danger was, how could you warn them?”
Fuentes: “I should have known.”
Priest: “Maybe. Maybe innocence is a sin.”
The priest remarks that Fuentes has lived the priest’s dream (to so something practical like
cure the sick instead of trying to make life eternal), while the priest has lived Fuentes’
dream (to make life eternal by leaving a legacy instead of doing something for its utility
in the present).
As Fuentes relieves himself, a man with a machete approaches him.
There are actually two men. They are “gum people” who harvest tree sap.
They camp with the travelers. They ask for a story.
The priest offers a “ghost story.”
In the third person, he tells his own story about how he deserted his parishioners when the
army threatened him.
Flashback to the village: Villagers vote to sacrifice six of their members to the army in exchange
for the rest of the village being spared. One of the six is the priest. Another is the man who
conducted the meeting.
“The church called the gospel he taught liberation theology. But he chose to liberate
The villagers dig the graves of those who will be sacrificed.
The priest says he has been back to the village. It is no longer there.
He asks the gum people what they would do in the priest’s place.
One says he doesn’t know. “Priests aren’t regular people.”
In the morning, the deserter asks the priest to hear his confession.
The priest says he isn’t a priest anymore. “I don’t where a cassock, see?”
“I was a soldier but now I don’t wear a uniform. Does that mean I haven’t killed anyone?”
“Killing the enemy in battle isn’t the same as murder.”
The deserter begins his confession.
Flashback: the deserter kills (butchers) a prisoner as other soldiers cheer and urge him on.
Driving on….
Fuentes to priest: “Are sins only things that you do? Or can they be things that you don’t do?”
Priest: “There are sins of commission and sins of omission. And then there’s Original Sin.
We’re all born guilty in the eyes of the Lord.”
Fuentes: “What if a man has hurt someone without wanting to, with no intention?”
Priest: “He’s probably not a sinner. But he’s an idiot for sure… an idiot or a coward. But if God
kept such people out of heaven, He’d be very lonely.”
They approach an army truck. The deserter urges them to try to pass. The soldiers in the truck
jeer as the truck driver swerves to prevent them from passing. But they do manage to pass.
Then they come to a roadblock. Fuentes shows his identification.
The priest gives excuses for all the others in the car, but says he is a ghost. He is ordered out
of the car.
As he leaves, he turns to Domingo and says, “I absolve you.”
When he is gone, Fuentes asks, “Why did he do that?”
Domingo replies, “He’s crazy. And he’s a lousy priest.”
The scene at the roadblock is poor. The results would have been much worse. It is probable that
everyone in the car would have been taken into custody when the priest wouldn’t give a straight
answer. In El Salvador, everyone was required to carry an identity card (cédula) and everyone
would have been required to show it, not just the doctor.
They arrive at a refugee camp, Comunidad de la Esperanza—actually a “strategic hamlet.”
Fuentes discovers that another of his students has been “executed” for helping the guerrillas.
A solder says, “Why else would an educated man live out here?”
Fuentes: “Maybe he just wanted to help the Indians.”
Soldier: “It’s the same thing.”
Fuentes treats the refugees. The deserter serves as translator. He was a “medic,” but with no
training. He says the soldiers have sold their medicines.
A woman won’t speak since she was raped two years before.
Fuentes won’t give her medicine. The deserter gives her a rack of pills from Fuentes’ bag.
In the camp, they hear that Fuentes’ student, Dr. Montoya is at a settlement even farther up the
mountain, or at least she is rumored to be. The village is Cerca del Cielo [Near Heaven]. No
one has ever seen it. The soldiers have not been able to find it.
As they prepare to leave, Fuentes asks a soldier what became of the other man who had been
with them. The soldier responds, “You should be more careful who you pick up.”
The doctor drives off in the night.
A woman appears in the road. It is the woman who was raped.
She indicates that she wants to go to the hidden village, Cerca del Cielo. They pick her up.
The boy and the deserter argue about whether such a place really exists.
The woman steals the deserter’s gun while the others sleep.
Fuentes sees her and follows her. When he catches up, she is holding the gun to her head.
He talks her out of suicide. She gives him the gun.
He gives it back to the deserter, not knowing that it now has bullets in it.
They find out where Cerca del Cielo is, but there is no path to it.
Flashback: the deserter remembers being order to commit a rape.
They stop to rest.
Domingo wants to keep pushing ahead. When Fuentes says he must rest, Domingo goes off
on his own, despite Fuentes’ warning that his wound will become infested.
Fuentes, feeling tired and frustrated: “Why come here in the first place?”
Boy: “To get away from white people.”
Fuentes, with a laugh: “I guess that might be worth it. There should be somewhere that white
people are not allowed.”
They run into the US tourists again.
The woman says, “It is so peaceful here.”
As they camp for the night, guerrillas who have captured the deserter find them. They confirm
that Dr. Montoya, Fuentes’ last student, is at Cerca Cielo—or, at least, is rumored to be.
The guerrillas ask about the ice cream flavors at the parlor in the capital.
This is to show that they are ideologically unsophisticated, motivated simply by their sense
that life should be better than it is. In other words these are not “Marxist guerrillas,” tough
killers motivated by a determination to overthrow capitalism. They are simple peasants
seeking a better life.
The deserter still has his pistol after having been captured by the guerrillas. That is
impossible. It is also impossible that he could have kept it through a couple of military
checkpoints or after having been in the “refugee camp.”
The next day they struggle up the mountain towards Cerca del Cielo.
The Mayan woman storyteller senses their arrival.
Fuentes walks through the camp. It is a dismal place. He asks an old man for Dr. Montoya.
Old man: “There is no doctor here…. This is where rumors come to die.”
Fuentes (soliloquy): “This is my legacy. Every man should leave a legacy, something he built,
something he left in the world. Someone he passed his knowledge to, who will carry on for
him. This is what I leave. At least I don’t have to climb anymore.”
Fuentes dies. His body is discovered by the deserter, Domingo.
Domingo, Conejo, and the mute woman are approached by the Mayan girl, who seeks a
Her mother has shrapnel in her leg from a land mine.
The deserter repeats that the doctor is dead.
But he is persuaded to become a “doctor” by the others.