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THE OLD doctor told his idealistic students that their enemies would be "bacteria and ignorance." Then he sent them up into the mountains to care for the poor, starving, isolated Indians, many of whom scarcely know what a doctor is.

It has been a long time since he has heard from his students, though. So he packs up his 4x4 wagon, closes his office and goes up into the mountains to check on them. Where, he asks the Indians, is Dr. Cienfuegas? Muerto, say the few peasants will talk. Dr. Arenas, too. How? Killed. By whom? Men With Guns.

Not "soldiers" or "militia." Just Men With Guns. The Indians and starving mountain mestizos, in their ignorance and simplicity, understand the real human genre their tormentors belong to far more than politically sophisticated doctors from the city.

Why do Men With Guns kill doctors? Because they don't like them. Why not? Because doctors save everyone, regardless of politics.

The methods of killing his old students vary. Some seem to have been shot, some burned with gasoline. But the victims shared a common fate. Still, the old doctor's apparently futile and traumatic quest continues. Where is Dr. DeSoto? Dr. Hidalgo? He goes from town to town in this nameless country.

The peasants call themselves the Sugar People. Or Salt People. Or Coffee People. Or Corn People. It all depends on the products they mine or raise for the white profiteers who are sucking the country dry. In their simplicity, they categorize themselves as elementally as they categorize their oppressors as Men With Guns.

There is no more noble or admirable filmmaker in America than John Sayles. Certainly no other living filmmaker that I know of or can imagine would follow up "Lone Star" -- the major success of his filmmaking life -- with a powerful film like "Men With Guns," a film largely in Spanish with English subtitles.

Sayles was a writer long before he was a movie director, and when he tells you a story on film, it's one with a narrative structure so solid that a Caribbean hurricane couldn't blow it down. The narrative structure of "Men With Guns" is elegant and as penetratingly simple as the understandings of the mountain folk in his film. It's an old man's final quest for the meaning of his entire life, from mountain village to mountain village, where the news for his spirit is always bad.

He is ripped off constantly -- camera first, then hubcaps, then tires. Along the way, he picks up a ragtag band -- a starving waif, a runaway soldier, a priest on the lam. Their stories within stories are sometimes powerful as only a writer could make them. He keeps meeting up with an idiot American couple (Mandy Patinkin and Kathryn Grody).

The trouble, of course, is that, movies and writing are not always interdependent. A badly written film can still be great. And the reverse can often be true -- a superbly written film can be bad.

Still, what other living American filmmaker would even understand a man like Dr. Humberto Fuentes -- an old man for whom doing good is vastly more important than doing well, a man desperately in need of proof that his life has mattered?

For all his nobility and purity, there has always, it seems to me, been something missing in Sayles -- at the very least, a deep and profound understanding of human impurity.

Imagine "Men With Guns" by the great masters of modern film. Ingmar Bergman would have explored the philosophical crisis of the old doctor (he already did something of a sort in "Wild Strawberries"). Antonioni would have given him a past erotic life. Bunuel would have mocked and tortured him and turned him into a foul, blasphemous joke. Fellini would have had life dance grotesquely around him. Kurosawa would have shown the Men With Guns in full active horror and fury.

Sayles can do nothing but tell us the story from the outside. It accumulates power in its flinty understatement and lack of embellishment. But it's one-dimensional -- artfully so, but still one-dimensional.

One of his least-remarked-upon talents is his phenomenally shrewd eye for acting talent, and the actor who plays his old doctor -- Federico Luppi -- has the sort of gravity and presence you often find in Bergman, Fellini and Kurosawa movies, but rarely in movies by Americans.

There is, as always, a point with Sayles where his very integrity turns in on itself and take his films out of the world and away from where they need to be. His vehement dutifulness overwhelms all drama.

In a way, "Men With Guns" is a self-portrait of a noble filmmaker looking for his integrity in an increasingly inhospitable landscape. The mestizo mountain people might well call him "Man With Ideals."

And then stoically look on at his certain fate.

Men With Guns

Rating:*** 1/2 An aging doctor tries to find his old students in a politically rent Latin American country. Written and directed by John Sayles. Rated R, in subtitles, opening today in the Amherst Theater.

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