'Amigo' (R)

“If one is fighting for a holy cause, there can be no sin,” a priest tells a questioning member of his flock in John Sayles’ gripping new film. But because Amigo is a Sayles movie — intelligent, thoughtful, deeply resonant and wearing its political heart on its sleeve — we know that determining what is holy is a tricky business. As for sin, there’s miles of it on every side of human conflict.

Set in 1900 during the Philippine-American war, the film focuses on the uneasy relationship between a small occupying force of U.S. soldiers, some of them barely out of boyhood, and the nervous residents of a tiny Philippine barrio in which the soldiers set up a garrison. The lieutenant in charge (Garrett Dellahunt) is more or less a man of integrity, though he’s not above taking over someone’s house to use as his headquarters. In regular life he built houses. Now he’s a piece of the empire-building puzzle, answering to a ruthless commander, the aptly named Col. Hardacre (the great Chris Cooper).

On the other side is Rafael (Joel Torre), the town’s leader, who is torn between his duty to keep his people safe and family loyalty. His brother is the head of a guerrilla group waging war against the Americans, and his teenage son has run off to join them. Rafael doesn’t trust the Americans or want them anywhere near his barrio, but he’s responsible for keeping the villagers safe and so he must negotiate truce whenever possible. “Make no trouble” is his mantra, and he assures the soldiers he’s their “amigo.” But in such a volatile climate, trouble is inevitable. And it will also come from every direction, as the rebels observe a harsh punishment for anyone they see as a collaborator.

Alive with articulate, chatty and richly drawn characters — that beautiful Sayles trademark — Amigo is more than an historical representation of a little-known conflict; it’s a reflection on power and betrayal, on the thin line between acting as your conscience demands and protecting obligations close to your heart. It also bears an unsettling resemblance to other, more current American occupations: Before the tide turns and he embraces a more scorched earth policy, Col. Hardacre echoes a familiar refrain to his men: “We’re supposed to be winning their hearts and minds.” All too swiftly, though, after the guerrilla attacks escalate, the U.S. forces employ torture — pointedly using a horrifying method that evokes images of waterboarding — to force betrayal of the rebels.

As always, Sayles (Lone Star, Sunshine State, Eight Men Out) gets terrific performances from his sprawling cast. The heart of the film, though, resides with Filipino actor Torre. His understated, heartfelt performance as a man struggling to balance his responsibilities with what he knows is right lingers long after the terrible events of Amigo come to an end.

Cast: Joel Torre, Garrett Dellahunt, Chris Cooper, DJ Qualls.

Writer-director: John Sayles.

Producer: Maggi Renzi.

 Running time: 128 minutes. Some violence, language. Opens Friday Dec. 16 in Miami-Dade only: Miami Beach Cinematheque.