So much lies under the surface of “Guilty Men” that it’s often difficult for non-natives of Colombia to figure out all the forces at work. Iván D. Gaona’s handsome, occasionally suspenseful tale of a trucker/DJ in the country’s rural Santander province playing cat-and-mouse with paramilitary groups while trying to win back his love relies a great deal on things that are neither said nor shown, such as a knowledge of the extent to which paramilitary forces had the country in their grip as late as 2005 (when the film takes place), and the government’s willingness to challenge that power. Gaona populates his feature debut with non-professional locals, foregrounding a tangible sense of realism, plus his use of Edson Velandia’s music adds a great deal to atmosphere and character, yet the often opaque narration means audience attention too easily drifts. Outside festivals, it’s difficult to imagine “Guilty Men” playing much away from home.
What makes the film memorable are a few set-pieces, including the tense opening when four men in a truck at night wait for a rendezvous that subsequently goes awry. They’re meant to hand over protection money the town pays to the local paramilitary forces, but things don’t go as planned, and they’re left holding the dough. For those in the know, the timing is crucial: In 2005, the Colombian government was negotiating to demobilize the paramilitary groups, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty regarding their disbandment as well as the government’s shadowy relationship with these forces.
Much more straightforward is the relationship between trucker Willington (Willington Gordillo) and Mariana (Leidy Herrera), his ex-girlfriend now pregnant and engaged to his cousin René (René Diaz Calderón). Willington isn’t willing to accept that he’s lost Mariana, and while she still harbors feelings for the guy, she’s made her decision to stick with René. One of the most appealing elements of the film is the way director Gaona largely refrains from painting anyone as black and white, and the deeper one gets into the story, the more shading is revealed. It doesn’t help to clear up the ambiguities, but ensuring that most characters are neither all-good nor all-bad means “Guilty Men” is a much more human film than other dramas basing themselves on often clear-cut Westerns.
Tellingly, that genre too usually combines love story elements with grittier plotlines. Willington’s conflict with René becomes even more acute, as no one is clear what to do with the money which is meant to go to the paramilitary, though René could certainly use the cash to help offset his upcoming wedding, not to mention the costs of the baby on the way. In addition, various people around town are reporting thefts, and no one knows whom to blame.
Besides the opening scene, there’s another memorable sequence in which Willington and René are chased through fields of sugar cane by a menacing motorcyclist in a darkened helmet. Shot and edited with a fine sense of rhythm that milks the maximum amount of tension, this is unquestionably the film’s highlight and comes exactly when viewer concentration might be lagging given the often unclear circumstances.
Gaona’s talents appear to lie mainly in the directing rather than scripting departments, and he’s done an impressive job working with the amateur actors, all locals from the small town of Güepsa, where Gaona also shot his shorts. His previous collaborations with cinematographer Juan Camilo Paredes have also served him well, as “Guilty Men” mines a great deal of its power from a precocious visual language that contrasts sunshine with darkness for added effect. While the soundscape at times seems to control the film more than the action on screen, the music itself, with an evocative blend of songs, adds considerably to an understanding of the people and their place in the society. The Spanish language title, “Pariente,” translates as “Kinsmen,” which plays in much more interesting ways with the various relationships on screen than “Guilty Men.”