Amigo is cinema as anthropology. I must now unpack my opening claim. The film is set in a late-19th-century Filipino village and pays very close attention to the rhythms and activities of that way of life—the growing of rice, the storage of food, the uses of large and small animals, the resolution of disputes between villagers, the festivities, the forms of worship, the forms of music, the care of the old, the building of homes, the general organization of the society. But the anthropology is not limited to the villagers; it also extends to the American soldiers who are occupying the village (this is the Philippine-American War), the original colonizers of the Philippines (the Spaniards), and the Chinese laborers.
Despite living in the same village, each group or culture is contained in a world that doesn't connect in any meaningful way with the other groups. The Chinese speak only Chinese, the Americans speak only English, the natives speak mostly Tagalog, the Spaniards speak mostly Spanish. There is, however, a Spanish friar who speaks all of the languages, but he is an unreliable translator—all exchanges are altered to fit his own religious interests. Because no one can communicate their true feelings outside of their world, the situation in the village is always unstable, precarious, and about to explode into violence.
Freedom fighters are in the jungle somewhere. These old and young men want to liberate their country, but they are no match for American military power. The American soldiers have no idea why they are in the jungle—they hate the rain and think the natives are monkeys. The natives are not simply oppressed by Europeans and Americans, they have their own class and race issues. The village mayor (Joel Torre) is by no means innocent. The American officer (Garret Dillahunt) is by no means totally guilty. The greatness of the film is the ease with which it presents (or even plots) these cultural, social, and historical complexities. The future will probably see Amigo as John Sayles's best film.