No filmmaker is more sensitive than Ken Loach when it comes to charting the connections between personal and political experiences. He's been exploring large-scale issues through human-scale movies for more than 30 years, and his new picture, "Carla's Song," continues this commendable practice.
Robert Carlyle, ("The Full Monty" and "Trainspotting") plays a likable Scottish bus driver who makes a new friend when he lends a helping hand to a young Nicaraguan immigrant. Their relationship blossoms into romance, but it's clear the woman has unhappy secrets stemming from her recent past.
Eventually they travel to Nicaragua in search of her brother, who has undergone great torment for his political actions and beliefs. There the couple gets involved with a former American agent who has turned against US policies that he now considers wrong. The story reaches its climax with an attack by Contra rebels, which crystallizes the movie's themes in pungent and polemical terms.
Throughout his career, Loach's filmmaking has been most effective when he's conveyed his messages through direct, everyday stories that anyone in the audience might feel close to, as in "Ladybird, Ladybird" and "Raining Stones," which deal with family life. He's less adept at tales of intrigue ("Hidden Agenda") and action-based melodramas ("Land and Freedom") that stretch his modest budgets and his cinematic capabilities.
Not surprisingly, "Carla's Song" works best in its most intimate moments, as the working-class hero and memory-haunted heroine fall in love and try to build a caring relationship despite the obstacles in their paths.
It's less convincing when it breaks into Hollywood-style action, and it nearly falls apart when the American operative (played by Scott Glenn, of "The Right Stuff") goes into a political rant that's overwritten, overacted, and overwrought.
In the end, "Carla's Song" is a flawed but worthy effort that carries on Loach's fine tradition without deepening or broadening it as much as his admirers might hope.
* Not rated; contains some harrowing visual and verbal violence.