It's been called "the most efficient mass killing since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki" - over 800,000 people exterminated in a little over three months. Except, instead of bombs, much of the work was done with machetes, one victim at a time. In some cases, you could request that you be shot in the head, but only if you could afford to pay for the bullet. And that's what passed for mercy when the Republic of Rwanda turned into a boiling cauldron of genocidal violence during the spring and early summer of 1994, its Hutu population determined to wipe its Tutsi population off the face of the earth.
"Cut down the tall trees," blared the radios, which were used by the Hutus in power to mobilize the citizenry. Stereotypically taller than the Hutus, the Tutsis had long served as the country's elite, despite composing less than 15% of the population. But the Belgian government, which had administered its African colony with the help of the Tutsis, handed the keys over to the Hutus before pulling up stakes and heading out of town. Suddenly, it was payback time. And while the United Nations looked on and individual nations looked the other way, Rwanda devoured itself. Those who refused to eat - moderate Rwandans - were themselves eaten.
How to make sense of such senseless slaughter? Terry George's Hotel Rwanda, which takes us back to that horrible time, doesn't even try. Instead, it does what movies often do when faced with senseless slaughter. It desperately looks around for a silver lining. And it appears to have found one in the form of Paul Rusesabagina, a real-life hotel manager who was responsible for saving 1,268 lives, most of them Tutsis. That Rusesabagina is a Hutu only adds to his saintly luster. Like Oskar Schindler and his list, Paul Rusesabagina and his hotel are the very symbol of hope, a beacon of light in a world overcome with darkness.
When the movie opens, Rusesabagina is in his element, picking up a shipment of Cuban cigars at the airport. He's a wheeler-dealer who knows how to keep everybody happy in a country rife with corruption. And Don Cheadle, who plays him, gives off just the right air of diplomatic ease - forceful when necessary, sycophantic when that's what's called for. How Rusesabagina managed to turn his luxury hotel, owned by a Belgian company catering to the international business class, into a sanctuary for those lucky enough to wind up there is mostly a matter of well-placed bribes. Exactly why he did it is another question altogether.
Alas, it's one that the movie never quite answers. "You're a good man, Paul," Rusesabagina's wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), tells him after he's somehow eluded another threat by government representatives. Holed up in the hotel with Rusesabagina and his flock, we're largely spared the sight of a country that's quickly turned into an abattoir, not that there isn't plenty of butchering on display for those not used to such things. But George, who also co-wrote the script, doesn't have a lot of cinematic flair. Being Irish, he knows a few things about civil strife. What he doesn't know is how to heighten the horror.
Or maybe he just doesn't want to. Maybe he thinks the horror is horrible enough on its own. Shot in South Africa, Hotel Rwanda feels authentic enough, even when Rusesabagina, for one reason or another, has to venture beyond the walls of the hotel compound. But Nick Nolte, as a United Nations military officer whose hands are largely tied, doesn't help us suspend our sense of disbelief. And neither does Joaquin Phoenix as a cameraman with an eye for the ladies. Only Cheadle, whose cultivated accent (English by way of French) suggests a man as comfortable with his European employers as with his Rwanda neighbors, seems right at home.
Cheadle has a wonderful moment when Rusesabagina, having just returned to the hotel after witnessing the bloody aftermath of yet another atrocity, tries and fails to tie his tie, finally crumpling to the floor. We suddenly realize that we've rarely seen him out of his business suit and that we've never seen him express very much emotion. On the contrary, he's been perfectly poised between performing his duties as hotel manager and taking on the burden of saving his people. But the tie, which is strung around his neck like a noose, provides a potent symbol of Western imperialism. Rusesabagina, in his own quiet way, is enslaved to an ideology.
Or so it seems. One can imagine a more complex portrait of this enigmatic man, who was an enigma even to himself. In his book about the Rwandan genocide, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, Philip Gourevitch asked Rusesabagina why he did what he did. Rusesabagina didn't know, preferring to ask why everyone else did what they did. Hotel Rwanda can't possibly make sense of the madness that engulfed that country. Nor can it reproduce that madness. But given those limitations, maybe there's something to be learned from Paul Rusesabagina. He kept his head while all those around him were losing theirs.