Chile had its own version of September 11, a national tragedy that scars the country to this day. On September 11, 1973, General Augusto Pinochet led the Chilean armed forces in a coup d’etat against the democratically elected socialist president of Chile, Salvador Allende. The Pinochet military junta ruled Chile until 1990. During those 17 years, about 3,100 Chileans became los desaparecidos–the disappeared; most bodies were never found.
Chilean actor turned filmmaker Manuela Martelli’s Chile ’76, her debut feature film, takes place three years after the coup. The film’s mood, enhanced by the stark synth score by Maria Portugal, never lets us forget the state of the world that surrounds the story, while the leading character is gradually drawn into it.
Carmen, a wealthy middle-aged woman (Aline Küppenheim, in a role written for her by Martelli), is getting ready to update her beach house for the summer season. Her physician husband is busy at the hospital in the city; he and their children and grandchildren are in and out of the story. One of Carmen’s preoccupations is preparing for her 7-year-old granddaughter’s birthday party. She’s not an uncaring person; she reads stories to a group of visually impaired people and collects clothing and shoes for poor kids.
While Carmen is consulting about paint colors, a woman screams outside. She’s attacked and abducted in the street, but no one in the store pays attention. As Carmen gets into her car, she sees a woman’s shoe under the car and pushes it away.
The day after Carmen arrives at the beach house, her old friend, Padre Sanchez (Hugo Medina), visits and asks for her help. He’s sheltering an injured young man who’s in danger of being captured and imprisoned; he wants Carmen to care for him. Carmen hesitates but she’s a former Red Cross nurse; she agrees to help. The young man ElÍas (Nicolás Sepulveda) is not a common criminal, as the padre suggested, but a political activist. He’s been shot in the leg. Carmen cares for him and is gradually drawn in to his story.
With home decorating and birthday plans under way, Carmen becomes enmeshed in the politics of ElÍas and his group. She lies to obtain antibiotics and bandages from various medical facilities. She takes devious routes to get messages to his friends. One night she finds herself out after curfew; she’s stopped by troopers on the highway.
Carmen is always perfectly groomed and fashionably dressed; she does not look grandmotherly or political. She self-medicates and smokes heavily. Carmen remains calm on the surface until she begins to see threats around her. Kuppenheim’s performance as Carmen is sensitive and subtle; she changes gradually and her eyes and facial expressions reflect what she’s going through. Formerly politically indifferent and surrounded by Pinochet supporters, she finds herself becoming part of the opposition.
In the second half of the film, Carmen becomes radicalized—scene by scene. She senses threats everywhere, in people she passes on the street and in comments she hears socially. Martelli and her co-writer, Alejandra Moffat (The Wolf House), build the tension subtly and steadily. In the end, Carmen’s two worlds collide.
Chile ’76 is different from other films about Chilean authoritarianism and life under political dictatorships. Ariel Dorfman’s play and film, Death and the Maiden, is politically threatening from its first moment. Argentina, 1985, is a docufilm about how a public prosecutor and his young team dared to prosecute the leaders of Argentina’s bloody military dictatorship. Patricio Guzman’s many documentaries about Chile—including The Battle of Chile, Salvador Allende, and Nostalgia for the Light, are saturated with blood and politics—and searches for the bones of los desaparecidos. Chile ’76 tells a similarly chilling story but places it in the context of the life of a woman whose initial worry is her granddaughter’s birthday cake.
The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
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