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Ten years ago, as the country of Rwanda descended into madness, one man made a promise to protect the family he loved--and ended up finding the courage to save over 1200 people. Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager in Rwanda, secretly used his position and intelligence to shelter over a thousand refugees during the genocide crisis.
For more about Hotel Rwanda and the Hotel Rwanda Blu-ray release, see Hotel Rwanda Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on March 21, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Starring: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Joaquin Phoenix, Nick Nolte
Director: Terry George
» See full cast & crew
Hotel Rwanda Blu-ray Review
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, March 21, 2011
We evidently haven't learned very much from the Holocaust. Genocide still scars our planet, as recent atrocities like Darfur have so sadly proven. But it's taken filmmakers over a generation to even come firmly to terms with the horrors of Auschwitz and the other camps of Nazi madness, despite a number of films alluding to the tragedy from virtually the close of the war on. It was of course Schindler's List perhaps more than any other dramatic film (as opposed to a documentary) which made the situation faced by Jews somehow "real" for the first time. Whether or not that's a sad commentary on the public at large's ability to grasp the moral implications of radical sociopolitical movements like Nazism is best left for wiser analysts than this reviewer. Nevertheless, the fact remains that it took until the early 1990s for something like Schindler's List to address not just the Holocaust per se, but the variety of responses to it (which does not negate earlier films like Judgment at Nuremburg or The Pawnbroker which at least danced around the edges of various controversies). Therefore, one probably shouldn't hold out hope—if hope is the right word—that more recent atrocities could be looked at by filmmakers, helping to elucidate that strange concatenation of events which seems to bring out both the best and the worst in human beings. And yet into that fray Hotel Rwanda bravely stepped in 2004, making attention deficit prone Westerners perhaps uncomfortably aware of a tragedy which they had either never heard of, or at the least, not paid all that much attention to.
Hotel Rwanda gives a good if generalized background into the long simmering conflict between rival ethnicities (a questionable, but convenient, term) in Rwanda, the Hutus and the Tutsis. As is described in almost a throwaway conversation inside the nicely appointed Hotel des Milles Collines, the division of Rwandans into these two camps was a vestige of Belgian colonizers, who supposedly "racially" separated the two by measuring the width of noses and relative heights, as well as comparing skin tones. In essence this is probably no different than other cultures assigning patronymics like Weiss or Schwarz to describe an immigrant's skin or hair coloring, but in the more or less uniformly black culture of Rwanda, it seems positively bizarre. That very bizarreness is not lost on the Rwandans themselves, and the common, everyday folk seem to be less interested in whether or not they're Hutu or Tutsi than do the militant, power hungry types who skirt around the edges of the film before erupting into its main storyline. The dichotomy between the distinctions and the commonality of most everyday Rwandans is highlighted effectively by the fact that main character Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle in his Academy Award nominated performance), a Hutu, is married to a Tutsi, his wife Tatiana (Sophie Okenedo in her Academy Award winning performance). But in even more casual relationships—as in two similar looking women friends at the hotel bar whom a traveling journalist (Joaquin Phoenix) talks to, the seemingly nonsensical and artificial divisions between the two groups become positively head-scratching.
And yet probably even less ridiculously artificial divisions have led to conflict and even war in any number of cultures throughout the ravaged history of human conflict, and Hotel Rwanda more or less simply plops us down in the quickly devolving state of affairs in Rwanda circa 1994, when Hutu militants sought to basically wipe the Tutsis off the face of the planet, or at least their country, in a murderous rampage which became genocidal by the time it had finished. Rusesabagina is shown to be a more or less apolitical guy, a schmoozer who's Assistant Manager at the Hotel des Milles Collines, and a man who can navigate, albeit tenuously at times, the turgid waters that rage between the rival groups.
What's so striking about the depictions of life in Rwanda, at least in the opening moments of the film, are how more or less Western the Rusesabaginas are. A beautiful family life in a nicely appointed suburban home. An extended family full of love and gorgeous children playing in the leafy yard. And yet just beneath the surface here is a roiling tempest of political unrest, one which suddenly spills into the Rusesbagina's own neighborhood, as soldiers beginning dealing with the "Tutsi problem" by simply killing the "undesirables." In a terrifyingly palpable sequence, the Rwandan military descends upon the Rusesabagina household, where a coterie of friends and family have gathered, and Paul must desperately negotiate their safe passage to the Hotel, where he feels he can keep them safe, perhaps with the assistance of the local United Nations peacekeeping commander (Nick Nolte).
This collision of decent, everyday people with brutal thugs given the illusion of their own power courtesy of a uniform and guns is more than a little reminiscent of Schindler's List, but unlike the Spielberg opus, we're being told this story by one of the very people being affected by the brutality. Rusesabagina manages to turn the Hotel into a refuge for well over 1,000 Rwandans, both Hutu and Tutsi, and amazingly enough, he keeps them all alive throughout the worsening conflict. Cheadle has never been better than he is in Hotel Rwanda, and in fact this film finally gives him the room and the depth to really show what a consummate performer he is. Rusesabagina is not necessarily an overly complex character, but he's caught in such a maelstrom of horrendous behavior and tornadic events that it takes an actor of considerable skill to portray both terror and resolve with equal facility. Cheadle is completely up to the task, as is Okenedo, who manages to be steely and also incredibly vulnerable.
Director and co-writer Terry George has an excellent grasp on the human element of this story. He gives us just enough background information to anchor us in the context of the political unrest, without weighing us down with unnecessary information. The best part of the backstory here is how effortlessly it's delivered, without screeds or narration, usually just in terms of passing dialogue between various characters. But George was incredibly lucky to have a real life character like Rusesabagina on which to base his film, for certainly Rusesabagina stands as a perfect example of an ordinary man called upon to do extraordinary things as events dictate.
Hotel Rwanda Blu-ray, Video Quality
Hotel Rwanda is one of the nicer looking Blu-rays in this recent wave of (initial) Best Buy exclusives we've been treated to lately. Delivered to Blu-ray via an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.35:1, Hotel Rwanda sports excellent color, abundant fine detail and a very natural, filmic looking grain structure. Very few if any artifacts of any kind crop up during this presentation, and instead we get a nicely sharp and very crisp visual presentation which offers both the lyrical and the horrendous throughout the film. Rwanda, despite the horrors which the film depicts, is shown to be a lovely place, and a lot of the outdoor shots feature amazing depth of field and wonderful variations in light scale. Close-ups reveal impeccable fine detail, and a lot of the dark interior shots sport equally excellent contrast and solid black levels.
Hotel Rwanda Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Hotel Rwanda features a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that is surprisingly robust and immersive for such a relatively quiet, character driven film. The film is graced by a number of excellent source cues, including some propulsive pieces by Afro Celt Music System, and those fill the surrounds with impeccable precision and excellent fidelity. Several sequences feature startling gunfire or other violence which erupts with both some impressive LFE as well as really good usage of side and rear channels. The quieter, dialogue driven moments are equally effective, and a wealth of well positioned ambient effects also dot the soundfield with appealing regularity.
Hotel Rwanda Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Hotel Rwanda Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Hotel Rwanda got a little lost in the shuffle of 2004 blockbusters, despite its Academy Award nominations. This is a bracing and at times very emotional film which should appeal to anyone with a sense of social justice. Cheadle is wonderful in what will probably remain one of his defining performances, and the entire film manages to capture the tenor of those horrible Rwandan times without being overly sensational about anything. Director George has a very firm grasp on story elements, visual style and especially well modulated performances, and Hotel Rwanda is certainly deserving of a "check in" from savvy consumers. Highly recommended.
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