The genocide of some one million Rwandan Tutsis by their Hutu neighbors remains a disgraceful and too-little-known episode in recent world history. Alas, Terry George’s ineffectual “Hotel Rwanda” only partly rectifies that problem, taking what ought to have been a complex, powerful inquiry and simplifying it to a story about the resilience of the human spirit. Made firmly in the self-conscious, change-the-world mold of many of the films about the apartheid years in South Africa, pic is lent dimension by Don Cheadle’s exquisitely crafted lead performance. Grueling subject matter portends a hard road commercially for this fall MGM release.
For some 100 days in 1994, the streets of Rwanda gushed with blood, following the death of President Juvenal Habyarimana in a suspicious plane crash. Further spurred on by the hate-spewing propaganda of local radio broadcaster RTLM, armed Hutu militias hell-bent on ethnic extermination took to the streets, indiscriminately slaughtering Tutsis and the moderate Hutus who dared to stand in their way. Of the many compelling stories to emerge from the bloodshed was that of Paul Rusesabagina (Cheadle), the Hutu manager of the posh Hotel Des Milles Collines in Rwandan capital Kigali, who sheltered more than 1,200 Tutsi friends, relatives and strangers from the start of the genocide in April to his evacuation in July.
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As dramatized here by George and co-screenwriter Keir Pearson, Rusesabagina deleted names from the guest list, bribed military officials with contraband goods and exhausted every other trick in his considerable repertoire while staving off the advancing, machete-wielding Hutu extremists. (Perhaps unavoidably, pic positions itself as a kind of “Schindler’s Hotel Registry.”)
It’s a gut-wrenching tale to be sure, but George and Pearson’s screenplay is undermined by an awkward structure that focuses on Rusesabagina and his heroic efforts to the near-exclusion of the horrors taking place outside the hotel; what auds see — along with cameos from Joaquin Phoenix as a foreign television journo and Nick Nolte as the Canadian commander of the U.N. forces — is a reasonably detailed portrait of 1,200 people who lived and a very sketchy one of the 1,000,000 who didn’t.
For instance, the film almost never finds time to fill in the background of the Tutsi-Hutu strife, particularly the fact that, in Belgian colonial times, it was the Tutsis who brutally oppressed the Hutus.
“Hotel Rwanda” still might have seemed more affecting had it resonated the kind of visceral sense of place that has marked similar portraits of communities under siege including “The Battle of Algiers” and the recent “Bloody Sunday.”
So much of the pic’s running time is spent on a series of mini-climaxes in which the hotel’s refugees are nearly executed only to receive some miraculous reprieve, that things become monotonous.
George, a longtime associate of Jim Sheridan who fared much better at the helm of his 1996 debut feature, “Some Mother’s Son,” here delivers flat, cramped staging which, combined with d.p. Robert Fraisse’s harsh overlighting, gives the film the feel of a cheap backlot production, even though it was shot on location.
The film draws what power it has from its performances, particularly from Cheadle, who sublimates himself into the role of a man whose life is built around service to others, and who believes to a fault in the essential goodness of people. Running interference between Tutsis and Hutus, government officials and rebels, he recalls Schindler, but in his docile temperament — worrying, even at the height of the conflict, about maintaining the high standards of the Mille Collines — he even more closely resembles Schindler’s scrupulous accountant, Itzhak Stern.
Ill-served by an underwritten role, “Dirty Pretty Things” star Sophie Okonedo makes the most of her handful of moments as Rusesabagina’s wife. And Jean Reno, momentarily freed from service to Luc Besson, does well in a cameo as president of a hotel and air conglomerate.