Chile ’76  Movie Review: Chilean actress Manuela Martelli’s directorial debut titled “Chile’76’” is a succinct thriller and an engrossing drama reflecting the geopolitical scenarios of that era. Set in the tumultuous times when Chile was under the dictatorship of its notorious general Augusto Pinochet, who toppled the democratically elected government via a coup d’etat and established a regime driven by fear and ruthless aggression. One of the de-facto facets of the regime was to stomp on any dissenting voices – by persecution and murders.
Martelli and her co-writer Alejandra Moffat find a different eye to portray the injustice and terrors of that time. For this, they choose neither the oppressor nor the oppressed. They chose the casual bystander. Till the bystander cannot remain a bystander. And in “Chile’76,” this bystander belongs to the class that does not generally inherently feels a need to have a qualm with a right-wing dictatorship.
For the film’s protagonist is one Carmen (Aline Kuppenheim), who is an upper-class housewife who seems to have it all. When the film starts, her first concern is whether the paint she is purchasing for redecorating her ‘Winter House’ has the correct shade of pink or not. Carmen’s husband is a successful doctor, who runs a hospital. Her children are well-established and she has her maid take care of most of the household stuff. It seems perfect for Carmen, with a mild hint of dissatisfaction.
Martelli crafts the early scenes (and the whole film if I may add in advance) with perfection to portray how insulated Carmen’s life is from the political turmoil that has gripped her nation. The first scene shows Carmen (along with many other bystanders) being unperturbed while a woman is taken out of the street in broad daylight, by the military. Carmen gets distracted by this. But not disturbed. Unlike disturbance, distraction fades quickly.
But the circumstances soon changes for Carmen. She gets entangled in what she never hoped of being entangled in. Carmen’s family priest, Father Sanchez (Hugo Medina), asks for a favor from her. Carmen was a caregiver and worked in Red Cross. She had dreams of becoming a doctor, but the usual patriarchal mindset stood in the way. Anyway, it is soon established that she knows her way around a medicine cabinet. That is why Father Sanchez asks her to treat a wounded young man. Only this young man is a comrade of the left-wing resistance. One of the many youngsters the government has vowed to stamp out.
Carmen’s world gets rocked, and rocked hard, by this sudden intrusion. Now she couldn’t just look away. She has to deeply look into the problem at hand. Slowly but gradually Carmen stops being a bystander, and we have a double life for the hitherto posh housewife. She has one life where she tends to her children, preparing the grand beach house for a birthday party. She also leads another life where she takes multiple bus rides to avoid the military. To pass a message to the comrades of her patient, Elias (Nicolas Sepulveda).
Martelli, along with her cinematographer, Yarara Rodriguez, and her editor, Camila Mercadal, creates the perfect dichotomy between these two lives. One of ignorant frivolities, and another of urgent needs of the common people. The film becomes a solid tense thriller once Carmen plunges into the darker areas of the government’s activities which her bourgeoisie class generally ignores. The paranoia she feels is palpable, as she becomes more aware of her surroundings. Maria Portugal’s synth-inspired background score, which occasionally feels like something out of Tarkovsky’s “Stalker,” and on other occasions, carries the golden-age noir vibes, underlines the tension in every scene.
However, the review would be incomplete if Aline Kuppenheim’s performance is not sufficiently praised. What a tour-de-force performance from the veteran Chilean actor, who is a formidable name in theater and films. Her performance perfectly brings out the necessary warmth and fear. The climactic scene where she struggles to separate her two lives at the birthday party while carrying the cake would be etched in every cinema afficiando’s memory, should they take the trouble to see this film.
And they should. “Chile’76” is a highly impressive debut by Manuela Martelli. One that would make her a filmmaker that most cinephiles would be eagerly waiting for the future works of. As I am.