THE STORY – Chile, 1976. Carmen heads off to her beach house. When the family priest asks her to take care of a young man he is sheltering in secret, Carmen steps onto unexplored territories, away from the quiet life she is used to.
THE CAST – Aline Küppenheim, Nicolás Sepúlveda & Hugo Medina
THE TEAM – Manuela Martelli (Director/Writer) & Alejandra Moffat (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 93 Minutes
The world will be endlessly fascinated by moments in history that saw strength rise from great oppression. There may be more famous examples that get the lion’s share of dramatizations. Still, a large-scale world war is not the only instance of citizens attempting to battle the evils of an insidious government. These can be inspiring and harrowing tales of perseverance, as well as highlighting how easily such condemnable conditions were able to fester. That interest never seems to dissipate, and “Chile ’76” is yet another endeavor to examine a frightful period of time when ordinary people dared to risk their safety to combat a dangerously tyrannical regime. While its intentions are honorable, the film ultimately ends up lacking a particular essence to keep it engaging.
As one could probably surmise, the film is set in mid-1970s Chile, during the early years of the aggressively brutal dictatorship under Pinochet. The violent crackdown on communist dissenters at first seems like a distant concern for Carmen (Aline Küppenheim), the housewife to a prominent doctor currently residing in their summer home. Her life appears carefree and simple until a local priest comes to her with a plea. A young man, Elías (Nicolás Sepúlveda), has been wounded following a combat with national forces, and Carmen is asked to look after him during his recovery. Her visit with this revolutionary sparks her own personal rebellion, and she slowly becomes more aware of the political cruelty surrounding her. As she involves herself more, those nefarious forces close around her. All efforts taken to battle against an unjust society also puts her further in jeopardy.
The subject matter being presented here is obviously disturbing and important to chronicle. However, little of that urgency is felt in the filmmaking. Credit is given to director Manuela Martelli for crafting some compelling sequences of suspense, in which the tension is brought out by some captivating framing and a chilling atmosphere. At the same time, that tone never seems to be sustained, often giving way to a lethargic pace that struggles to capture a more invigorating presence. The aesthetics themselves also feel modern and don’t ever really inhabit this period setting. What compounds these issues is a script that spends little time carefully escalating its stakes and building in a natural progression to give insight into these characters. Despite having an intriguing foundation, the narrative suffers from a flat presentation. The elements required to build this perilous journey into the underworld, the ever-present paranoia that seeps into every mundane action, are all there. Yet, their assemblage is weakly executed, and the storytelling struggles to become completely alluring.
A great credit is given to Küppenheim for her engrossing performance, by far one of the most effective elements on display. She perfectly embodies the perspective of a demure civilian, alarmed by the horrors that are ravaging the country, and slowly intervenes in the small ways she can. There’s a duality that morphs as she slides deeper into this movement, and her portrayal embodies this fracturing perspective. As the pressure builds and panic sets in, her determination and terror are equally balanced, leading to a powerful catharsis that must still be sheltered. It’s a commendable turn, and the scenes shared with Sepúlveda also showcase a tenderness that is endearing. Unfortunately, Elías stands for more of a thematic idea than an actual character, so the actor does not end up making the biggest impression. The same can be said for most of the film’s ensemble players, all of which pale in comparison to the leading lady.
Undoubtedly, the story “Chile ’76” aims to tackle is an important one. It’s examining a tumultuous time, and that deserves to be analyzed. Unfortunately, the results do not feel as imperative. One can appreciate the attempts to create a thrilling ambiance out of this material, and occasionally the film succeeds in this venture. At the same time, it often wrestles with a structure that does little to naturally build its momentum and present this world in a more stimulating manner. Even with a great performance at the center, not much outside of that aspect makes this an exceptional work. The subject matter, indeed, is worthy of discussion. Yet, this enterprise lacks the spirit to leave a greater impact.