CHILE '76 (2022)

Chile '76 is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here

It is an odd thing to be both heavy-handed and frustratingly restrained, yet Chile '76 (known simply as 1976 in its native country) manages to make both mistakes simultaneously, squandering a strong central performance between these unfortunate poles.

The debut directorial effort of Chilean actress Manuela Martelli—who co-wrote the screenplay with Alejandra Moffat—Chile '76 takes place three years into Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship, in an atmosphere of paranoia most effectively conveyed through off-screen arrests and overheard rumors of disappearances. The tense and oppressive political climate seems hardly to have come to the attention of Carmen (Aline Küppenheim), however, a middle-class woman married to a successful Santiago doctor. Carmen's biggest concerns are renovating the family's vacation home on the beach, and planning a birthday party for their 7-year-old granddaughter; her free-time and social conscience are occupied by reading books to the blind at her local community center.

Then a local priest, Father Sánchez (Hugo Medina), asks Carmen to shelter an injured young fugitive named Elías (Nicolás Sepúlveda), who—according to Sánchez—has been shot while stealing food. ("He's a starving Christ!" the priest tells her, in only the first of the film's many lead-balloon lines—one that will get only heavier as we later watch Carmen bathe the lean, long-haired, scraggly-bearded man in his underwear.) But it is not long before Carmen—and the audience—comes to understand that Elías is actually part of the underground resistance working against Pinochet's dictatorship. Soon, bourgeois housewife Carmen is awkwardly switching buses to exchange code words with Communist spies, and growing paranoid about suspicious cars following her and strange buzzes on her phone line.

It's a promising set-up for a film, a potentially intriguing character, and a historical situation ripe for exploration. Unfortunately, neither Chile '76 's direction, nor its screenplay, nor its score, are quite up to the task, and often these elements all seem to be working at cross-purposes. Martelli and Moffat's sparse screenplay gives us far too little to adhere to: nothing is ever really discussed; major events happen off-screen; relationships are not even explained, let alone explored; and the political situation is so simplistically waved at that the film never expands or deepens beyond its own premise. Whether viewed as a character study or a political thriller, Chile '76 lacks the depth and sophistication that would make it engaging.

Aline Küppenheim framed in two wall mirrors in CHILE '76.

Martelli's direction doesn't help: she tries (with only mixed success) for overwrought Hitchockian suspense in certain sequences, and she is (like many first-time directors) overly fond of her own shot compositions. (We repeatedly see Carmen laboriously framed in windows, mirrors, etc.) But there's no real tension—situational or emotional— because there just isn't enough material to care about. We watch Carmen from such a cool distance that we get almost no sense of her character, let alone her motivations. Are we meant to admire her? Sympathize with her? Judge her? There's simply not enough there to decide. (Küppenheim is an excellent actress, and does what she can with the underwritten part, but the resulting portrait is not substantial enough even to be intriguingly ambiguous: she's just frustratingly vague. We definitely get the feeling Küppenheim knows who this woman is, but Chile '76 doesn't give her a chance to let us in on the secret.)

And though I am not usually one to comment on a film's music, I was painfully conscious throughout Chile '76 of Mariá Portugal's score, an overly aggressive combination of orchestral and electronic noise that tries far too hard to compensate for the film's lack of tension and emotional investment.

I am aware that Chile '76 has been something a darling on the international festival circuit, picking up laurels here and there for Martelli and Küppenheim, and winning several "Best First Feature" awards. And, to be fair, I imagine it is possible to read a great deal into the film if you choose: the same gaps in the narrative I found frustrating could easily serve as receptacles for a lot of emotional projection and political interpretation. For myself, I found those narrative spaces not much more than empty air, and the film around them rather boring and shallow as result.

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