Why make movies about history's most epic failures of humanity, reducing them to some 120 minutes of melodrama, suspense, and tear-jerking? The question has haunted so many Holocaust films, with their portrayals of EZ-to-read heroism set against heart-rending strains of klezmer.
HBO's Rwanda-set ''Sometimes in April" clearly articulates the best answer after its final credits, with the simple phrase ''Never Forget." Translating the horrors of genocide into fictional stories is a way of embedding them in our cultural memory. About the 1994 murder of some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda, ''Sometimes in April" stands as an important remembrance, a cinematic antidote to the denial that comes with time and ignorance. The movie, which premieres tomorrow night at 9, is a brutal, depressing, dramatically flawed, but essential reminder.
April is the start of the rainy season in Rwanda, and it is also the month that Hutu extremists began their calculated slaughter in 1994. As bullets begin to rain down on terrified families, the African nation fell into a hell virtually ignored by the rest of the world. The panoramic ''Sometimes in April" tries to capture the 100 days of murder and rape from all points of view, including Rwandans living deep within the bloody conflict and a well-meaning American bureaucrat (Debra Winger's deputy assistant secretary of state) who's helpless amid Washington indifference. Ambitiously, the movie aims to encompass the personal and the political angles. But its strongest material is its intimately told personal story, about two Rwandan brothers on different sides of the battle.
Augustin (Idris Elba) is a peaceful Hutu army general married to a Tutsi woman, Jeanne (Carole Karemera). As April 1994 dawns, he desperately tries to move her and their three children to safety, since they've become walking targets. Honore (Oris Erhuero), on the other hand, is an incendiary DJ on a hate radio station who provokes Hutu listeners to kill their Tutsi neighbors, commonly referred to as ''roaches." In the atmosphere of growing chaos, Honore's broadcasts provide an important unifying and informational tool to the loose army of genocidal killers.
Too obviously, Honore is meant to be symbolically responsible for the sad fate of Augustin's family. But the gentle dialogue from writer-director Raoul Peck, and the soulful performances by Elba and Erhuero, nicely muddy the moral waters. Elba, from ''The Wire," is particularly impressive here, as he bears the emotional weight of the movie on his still face.
The action toggles between 1994 and 2004, when Honore is standing trial at the United Nations tribunal in Tanzania. He is pleading guilty to war crimes, and clearing his conscience, and so he invites Augustin to come visit him in prison. Still grieving over his losses, unable to move forward with his life, Augustin reticently takes up his estranged brother's invitation. Together again across a prison table, they define a decade of disaster and pain.
Ultimately, ''Sometimes in April" succumbs to schematic plotting. Having brothers representing two sides of a coin is convenient enough; adding in a few more heavily emblematic relationships strains the believability of the fictional story. The identity of Augustin's girlfriend, which I won't reveal here, is one of the twists that seems unnecessarily contrived. In an atmosphere of messy street violence and anarchy, the movie's story line is too neat.
And Peck's portrait of the lack of US intervention comes off as simplistic. Whether his take bears truth isn't the issue; it's the cursory way he mixes it into his fiction with a handful of news clips and scenes of Winger's character fretting. How the UN dealt with -- or didn't deal with -- the Rwandan genocide is a movie of its own, and not just the peripheral drama in an otherwise powerful tale.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.