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Titles can promise a lot. Implicitly or explicitly. And it’s just a matter of one word or two that can make a difference. “Summer of ’42,” for example, doesn’t necessarily suggest a wistful coming-of-age drama, but it’s sufficiently neutral that you don’t feel cheated when you find out that's exactly what it is. Call your movie “Chile ’76,” however, and you have to expect some viewers will anticipate world-historical subject matter. After all, 1976 marks three years after the violent overthrow of a democratically elected government in Chile, three years into the nearly 20 years of the brutal authoritarian regime of Augusto Pinochet. Surely this film, co-written and directed by Manuela Martelli, will address this in the narrative?
Well, yes and no. Pinochet is never mentioned in this picture, and it’s not because its largely bourgeois characters are necessarily fearful of invoking him; as it happens, they’re perfectly nonchalant in dinner conversations in which they call their country mediocre and sad. One can infer that maybe Martelli thought that to do so would be vulgar, on the nose. On the other hand, she is a director who trots out three explicit visual metaphors in the first five minutes of the movie. These depict its lead character, the upper-middle-class Carmen (Aline Küppenheim), sitting in a ramshackle house paint shop, leafing through a color tourist guide to Venice, and trying to contrive an ideal color for the interior of a summer home she’ll soon be renovating.
First, some paint drips off a sample stick and onto her elegant black shoe—chaos infects an orderly life. Then there’s a disturbance outside; someone is being arrested. The store owner draws down a metal shutter at the entrance, shutting out the events from view—willed blindness. Driving home, a passenger in the car holds a glass filled with water and two goldfish inside—life in a bubble.
At her beach home, the neighborly Carmen is approached by her priest, Father Sánchez, who asks her to look at a wounded young man named Elías (Nicolás Sepúlveda). A criminal, she infers. “He was stealing because he had nothing to eat. He’s a starving Christ!” the priest protests. While Carmen has had some medical training, she’s not a doctor. Trying to get antibiotics on the sly for this kid, who, with his lank long hair and facial growth, has a bit of a starving Christ vibe to him, proves to be so arduous she’s reduced to trying out a ruse at the local veterinary clinic.
“You’re not a common criminal,” Carmen says to Elías after one of their many elliptical conversations. No, of course, he isn’t. He’s an anti-government activist. Someone Pinochet would brand as a traitor and domestic terrorist and throw off a flying helicopter. “If I’m captured they’ll torture me,” he says. Candid about his strength, he tells Carmen he’d probably give up the priest’s name. But as he doesn’t know hers, he can’t. In any event, name-knowledge or none, he enlists Carmen to perform dangerous tasks on his behalf.
Martelli doesn’t turn this material into a suspense narrative. Using a directorial approach that, in my opinion, is a little heavy on Pablo-Larraín-style vagueness, she concocts a character study of a woman who does commendable things that nevertheless don’t change the viewer’s possibly “meh” impression of her. There’s subtlety, and then there’s deliberate evasion. In pursuing the former, “Chile ‘76” only achieves the latter.
Now playing in select theaters.
Aline Küppenheim as Carmen
Alejandro Goic as Miguel
Hugo Medina as Father Sánchez
Nicolás Sepúlveda as Elías
Antonia Zegers as Raquel
Marcial Tagle as Osvaldo
Amalia Kassai as Leonor
Gabriel Urzúa as Tomás
Luis Cerda as Pedro