Grade: B+

The 1994 genocide in Rwanda is a historically significant horror that’s been barely treated on film even in the most tangential way–and hardly emphasized by the mainstream media, either. That’s one reason why this picture by Terry George deserves a warm welcome: it has the courage to tackle the subject straight on. But “Hotel Rwanda” should be embraced not simply because of that; it’s a powerful, effective drama in its own right, featuring a stunning lead performance by Don Cheadle. And though set among the most grotesque sort of brutality and carnage, it’s ultimately a tale of human honor, decency and survival.

It’s clear that in order to make a film dealing with so grotesque and irrational a tragedy–a treatment that western audiences will be able to comprehend from their essentially rational perspective, as well as connect with emotionally–some dramatic center has to be fashioned. In many similar cases, that’s been accomplished by plunking a representative of the west into the action as the individual who serves as a sort of audience surrogate; think of a film like “Welcome to Sarajevo,” for instance, or to cite a more recent (and much less successful) example, “Beyond Borders.” But happily George chose not to follow that path. The linchpin of his narrative–based on, as they say, “a true story”–is a Rwandan named Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), who served as house manager in the ritziest hotel in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, the Milles Collines. When the massacre of the minority Tutsis by extremist Hutus began, Paul, himself a moderate Hutu with a Tutsi wife (Sophie Okonedo) as well as several children and a man of reason and faith in progress and order, could not believe that such an outrage could actually occur. As he came to realize the enormity of what was happening, however, he opened the hotel as a refuge to more than a thousand people, and when the outside world failed to take immediate action to intervene, he used every trick in his considerable repertoire–bribery, flattery, cooking the hotel records, veiled threats of western displeasure–to stave off the slaughter of his “guests” for months until Tutsi rebels ended the genocide and restored a semblance of order. (Among the unsavory figures he had to deal with during that time were a cunning Hutu general with a passion for single-malt Scotch–played with craft by Fana Mokoena–and a grocery supplier who also gives fanatical encouragement to the gangs via radio broadcasts that incite violence–played menacingly by Hakeem Kae-Kazim.) The impotence of the western powers in stopping the killing is symbolized in several ancillary figures: Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte), the well-intentioned but hapless head of the United Nations peacekeeping contingent, which is not only too small to be effective but hampered by orders that limit their action (eventually reinforcements are sent in, but only to evacuate westerners); a reporter named Jack (Joaquin {Phoenix), who’s instrumental in getting evidence of the slaughter but unable to do anything but flee when the opportunity arises; and the head of the Belgian firm that owns the hotel (Jean Reno), who can do little but make frantic calls to government leaders when he learns from Paul what’s occurring.

Structurally there’s obviously more than a bit of “Schindler’s List” in the screenplay by Keir Pearson and George, but that’s certainly not a bad model to follow; and in the event the narrative proves to possess dramatic tension and power, making us feel deeply the awful nature of the violence being perpetrated. Much of its strength depends on the impeccable performance by Cheadle–probably the best work this talented actor has ever done. He perfectly conveys Rusesabagina’s fundamental decency and deceptive imperturbability, as well as his growing desperation. Okonedo doesn’t have the same chance to shine that she did in “Dirty Pretty Things,” but she’s impressive in her relatively few scenes, and Mokoena and Kae-Kazim, as well as Desmond Dube as a loyal hotel employee and Tony Kgoroge as one of entirely different stripe, paint incisive supporting portraits. The western faces fare less well. Reno is more than adequate in what amounts to a cameo, and Phoenix happily refuses to steal the spotlight, but Nolte seems out of place as the Canadian colonel; one appreciates his dedication to principle in wanting to be involved in the project, but he never convinces, as hard as he tries. What must have been difficult location shooting, mostly in South Africa, has resulted in a production that (as photographed by Robert Fraisse) has a sometimes unfinished look, but the grittiness suits the story.

It’s easy to see how “Hotel Rwanda” could be improved. The background to the Hutu-Tutsi animosity isn’t sufficiently explained. There are brief remarks about European colonial responsibility for it, and the air crash that killed the Hutu president involved in trying to arrange an accord between the tribes is mentioned, but that’s probably not enough; westerners don’t immediately grasp the source of this hatred as they would, let’s say, the origins of the Holocaust. The heroic character of the Tutsi guerrillas is presented in terms that ignore actions on their part that could be criticized, too. And the ending–involving the location of Paul’s two orphaned nieces–has a comforting, triumphal feel that comes across as almost too wonderful to believe. (It may be true to history, but doesn’t quite seem so–an important distinction in a film.) But one shouldn’t make the idea of the perfect the enemy of the good we have to hand, and at least George’s film isn’t like those old Stanley Kramer movies: we had to make excuses for their ham-fisted quality even while praising their principled messages. This, on the other hand, is a deeply affecting film as well as an impassioned one.