Radical Brit filmmaker Ken Loach uses a cross-cultural love story to take a hard look at the New World Order in Central America in “Carla’s Song,” set between working-class Glasgow and war-torn Nicaragua. Less exalting and emotionally gratifying than last year’s Spanish Civil War pic “Land and Freedom, ” which saw Loach at his peak, the new film still burns with enough spirit to keep critical interest keen and the director’s following loyal. Good reviews should push it into the same arthouse fields plowed by previous pic, where it can be expected to echo that film’s performance.
Catapulting a pure-hearted, hot-headed Scottish working man into another dirty foreign war, this time in Nicaragua, Loach again shows human relationships mutilated and destroyed by historical events that his characters feel morally compelled to participate in. On a specifically political level, “Carla’s Song” takes a stridently anti-American stand, showing how the U.S. government successfully used the CIA to overturn the popular democracy of the Sandinista movement and finance its enemies, the Contra guerrillas.
George (Robert Carlyle) is a plucky Glasgow bus driver on the verge of getting married when he meets Carla (Oyanka Cabezas), a Nicaraguan refugee whose halting English and shy reserve hide a cloudy past. After defending the girl on his bus at the cost of his job. George stumbles across her dancing in the street for money and arranges for her to lodge with his friend Sammy (Gary Lewis).
In the charming Glasgow scenes, which occupy film’s first half, Loach is on the familiar ground of “Riff Raff, “Raining Stones” and “Lady bird Ladybird.” Clearly drawn characters swiftly reveal their worth through their solidarity, or lack of it, toward their fellows. The film is at its best showing George leap over every cultural barrier and stubbornly wedge his way into Carla’s tormented heart.
Eventually George becomes so enamored he breaks off his engagement. But he understands that Carla, torn apart by unconfessed demons, has to face her past. He buys them two tickets to Nicaragua.
Film shifts register when George and Carla reach Central America. With the help of a gaunt, prophet in the desert American human rights worker, Bradley (Scott Glen), the two journey across the guerrilla-in-fested countryside. Apolitical George is deeply shocked to view firsthand the horrors of the civil war between supporters of the Sandinista government and the U.S. backed Contras. Film’s big set piece is the Contra’s nighttime attack on a village with bazookas and guns, razing it to the ground.
Tyro scriptwriter Paul Laverty turns the clock back to 1987, when the civil war in Nicaragua was at its height and the Sandinistas in power. Using Bradley as its mouthpiece, the film points an accusing finger atcovert CIA operations in the area, while it shows the Sandinista as the country’s saviors who teach the people to read and write.
Yet like many Hollywood pictures set amid historical turbulence, politics tends to take a back seat to George’s awkward love story. Unlike the hero of “Land and Freedom,” George is merely a sympathetic observer, not a passionate fighter for other people’s causes. This probably accounts for why the Sandinistas, with their slogans, songs and T-shirts, often look like old-fashioned revolutionary wallpaper instead of a tragically failed movement worth caring about.
Distracted viewers who miss a few lines of crucial dialogue, particularly the crash course on Nicaraguan politics offered by George’s schoolgirl sister, may not even know which side the characters are on.
In the end, Caryle is the most convincing spokesman for the film’s message of brotherhood and solidarity between peoples. After very different roles in “Riff Raff” and “Trainspotting,” he turns in a sensitive, humorous portrait of the free thinking bus driver strong enough to throw away a safe, normal life and follow his heart to the other side of the world.
Nicaraguan actress and dancer Cabezas has a spirited, down-to-earth beauty that makes it obvious why George falls head over heels for her, but her character is noticeably underwritten. Wartime trauma seems insufficient to explain why Carla has lost contact with her family, and her motivations remain fuzzy.
Loach regulars handle the main tech credits impeccably. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd uses minimal lighting to give the film a documentary feel, in Glasgow streets as in the Nicaraguan jungle. The same simple realism appears in Martin Johnson’s set design. Geroge Fenton’s affecting score, interlaced with ethnic music is never overblown, while editor Jonathan Morris achieves a smooth segue between the film’s dual locations.