'Hotel Rwanda' is an upbeat story about a tragic place

Published: Friday, January 21, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 20, 2005 at 10:33 p.m.
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Sophie Okone and Don Cheadle star in "Hotel Rwanda," a riveting profile of an unliikely hero, hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina (played by Cheadle).

United Artists
Hotel horror stories in fiction take place in ominous old establishments with a skeleton staff and only a few unlucky guests. The real-life Hotel Mille Collines was a fully staffed four-star luxury establishment in the African capital city of Kigali. At the time of the horrific true story at hand, its occupancy was 1,268 nonpaying, very lucky guests indeed.
"Hotel Rwanda," directed by Terry George, is the shattering human drama of a black holocaust ignored by the white West: a genocidal civil war in which the country's extremist Hutu majority slaughtered nearly 1 million men, women and children of its Tutsi minority. But it is something else, and something more: a riveting profile in courage of an unlikely hero, who used his position and wits to rescue more than 1,000 potential victims from sure death.
House manager Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) is a safe, self-satisfied success, by Rwandan standards, at the time his country's catastrophe begins. Impeccably trained by the hotel's Belgian owners, he knows exactly how to cater to his European clientele and how to bribe his Rwandan suppliers. Not even a military coup much disturbs him.
His survival skills are easily adapted to the demands of new government "protectors," and besides - there are 2,700 U.N. peacekeepers in Kigali to keep the junta's abuses from getting too dangerously out of hand.
Paul's close working relationship with the Canadian commander, Col. Oliver (Nick Nolte), further lulls him into a false sense of security. But he is quickly disabused of it when the U.N. force is reduced to 270 and all foreigners evacuated.
Like other decent Hutus, Paul has been in denial about reports of the mounting atrocities against Tutsis. He can no longer afford self-delusion when refugees begin pouring into the Milles Collines, desperately seeking asylum - his own Tutsi wife (Sophie Okonedo) and children soon among them. The goal of a mad military and its virulent radio propaganda is to summon roving, machete-wielding Hutu gangs for nothing less than the complete eradication of Tutsis from Rwanda.
The film-going experience could have been as hideous as the reality, but it is not, thanks to George's restrained direction and Keir Pearson's carefully researched and co-written screenplay, which imparts historical background in small doses, sufficient for us to understand the basic issue (Hutu rage against the colonialists' preferential Tutsi social treatment and economic placement), while keeping the dramatic momentum squarely focused on Paul's personal struggle and passionately immediate crisis.
Cheadle's performance is likewise restrained but no less passionate, with his harrowingly believable evolution from contented to hunted man. Okonedo's quiet, dignified portrayal of Paul's wife adds a great deal. The "colorful" character has been allotted to Nolte, who, in his advancing late-middle age, looks and acts increasingly like Lee Marvin (in a benign frame of mind).
By commercial necessity, graphic images of the ghastly slaughter have been kept to a minimum. If anything, "Hotel Rwanda" has been perhaps too sanitized for mainstream audiences. The upbeat ending - however accurate within Paul's triumph - seems facile within the whole tragedy. One supposes it has to be: A world (especially an America) that wouldn't face the event at the time because it was too "distasteful" requires tasteful modifications even to face the film.
"Hotel Rwanda" is sad, soulful and significant. However difficult and disturbing, I think we all have an obligation to see it.

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