Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 14, 2023 8:15 pm 
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An upper middle class woman swept into Chile's anti-fascist resistence

Chile '76 is a stunning, stylistically elegant political thriller that makes you feel what it's like to live in a dictatorship and get your life changed by helping the opposition. The film takes place three years after the U.S.-backed coup d’etat that toppled the pro-socialist government of President Salvador Allende in the nation’s capital of Santiago on September 11, 1973. Carmen (Aline Küppenheim), whose family lives in Santiago, is a most unlikely revolutionary. That's the beauty of it. She could be you or me. And the slow, meandering process by which Carmen's transformation takes place. An IMDb citizen critic finds it "too subtle," too "meandering." But real-life thrillers take place in slow motion, by fits and starts.

True, Carmen is not all of us. She's an upper middle class Chilean woman of the Seventies. She may feel like a well off American woman of a somewhat earlier era. She smokes too much, takes too many pills, she dresses beautifully. Her hair is soigné. She has parties and teas, carries around cakes made to perfection by the faithful Estela (Carmen Gloria Martínez). It's a comfortable, privileged life and she enjoys it. She is all about her family, the children she's brought up, her husband (Alejandro Goic), a prominent doctor, her work with the Catholic Church, her experience years ago, but well remembered with the Red Cross. Director Martelli beautifully, at leisure, captures the pleasant rhythms of this life.

Her old friend Padre Sánchez (Hugo Medina) persuades Carmen to take over the care at her summer beach house, undergoing renovation, of a wounded young man, Elias (Nicolás Sepúlveda), whom he has been hiding. It's serious. There is danger of infection. He needs antibiotics, Penicillin. Why was Padre Sánchez hiding this man? He says he's "a common criminal," but with his handsome looks, his long hair, his private manner, that doesn't seem likely. Carmen is innocent of these matters at first. It's just a project.

This is a time, a place, a culture of pulling strings, indeed Carmen wangles extra pills and much more all the time for herself, so it's only a little stretch for her to start lying to get bandages and medicine, to invent a big sick dog and a problem with the vet. Now Carmen has a new occupation. Her life rather revolves around this task, but she covers; her husband is at the hospital most of the time.

We join her in her immaculate little blue Peugeot (a wonderful touch) as Carmen goes on jaunts. The stepped up thriller action comes when she attempts to carry and receive messages for her patient, for he and his fellow activists are in constant, mortal danger and cannot communicate except in person, and he cannot walk yet.

There are two particularly well-written, memorable scenes. After unspokenly Carmen has come to understand what she is working for and has been allowed even to think of herself as a heroine of Elias' cause. In the new government to come he half humorously promises a hospital will be named for her, or for her new code name in her communication jaunts, "Cleopatra." There is an afternoon when she goes out with her husband and another wealthy couple on the latter's sailboat,. They sit very close together. Subtly, or not so subtly, the other three's conversation hints at their endorsement of power, of repression, and we see her draw away when the other wife spews vicious anti-communist, pro-Pinochet rhetoric, Carmen literally throws up, pretending to be seasick. She is aware now. She feels differently. She is no longer one of them. She can never condone such talk or look the other way again. Her moral universe has changed.

In the other scene Carmen has gone to an unsuccessful meeting in a park some distance from Santiago. We feel her exhaustion. Impulsively, she stops on her way home at a little restaurant and orders a wine - no, a Coke - and a hot dog. A customer, a local, comes over and talks to her. In the new context his curiosity, otherwise so bland, or simply so off-key, vibrates with a menace that's all the worse for being inexplicable.

Chile,'76 succeeds so well because of this impeccable actress for whom surely this is a career best role and because of how richly the filmmakers recreate a class and lifestyle whose innocence could not be, and the omnipresent menace and physical danger in a fascist dictatorship.

Both Küppenheim and Goic have previously been in films about the Pinochet regime. For more about that and other background see the review by Ed Rampell in The Progressive Magazine.

Chile, '76/1976, 95 mins., debuted at Cannes Directors' Fortnight May 26, 2022 and showed at over two dozen other international festivals including London, Tokyo, Helsinki, Palm Springs and Santa Barbara. Screened for this review as part of New Directors/New Films of MoMA and Film at Lincoln Center (NYC), Mar. 29-Apr. 14, 2023. Opened May 5, 2023 at IFC Center (by its original title 1976) and is a New York Times "Critic's Pick." Metacritic rating 77%.


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