Disillusion with the U.S. government in the ‘70s fueled the creation of the conspiracy thrillers of the era — and made them resonate with audiences on a deeper level than they might have if the country was everything its citizens were promised. Chile ‘76 may have been made decades later and a continent away from its American brethren, but this unblinking Chilean thriller set during the Pinochet regime fits alongside those classics both in spirit and style. With her first film, writer-director Manuela Martelli would make Alan J. Pakula proud as she revisits a tumultuous time in her country.
In the opening scenes of Chile ‘76, the dictator’s rule—and all the associated torture and death—is merely a “bummer” to Carmen (Aline Küppenheim), who refuses to listen to the serious news of her country on the radio. Though she lives in its capital city of Santiago, she is less concerned with Augusto Pinochet than she is with the winter renovation of her family’s summer home at the beach and finding the perfect shade of paint for its walls.
However, when her priest (Hugo Medina) asks Carmen to harbor a wounded man (Nicolás Sepúlveda) in her home, she agrees, being the good woman of faith she is. Padre Sánchez tells her that the young man is a petty criminal, but she soon realizes he is an enemy of the state. Carmen’s easy upper-middle-class existence erodes, with the everyday concerns of being a grandmother in a wealthy family replaced by clandestine meetings, secret codes, and nursing gruesome injuries. Küppenheim is perfectly cast in the role, giving Carmen a sophisticated, composed facade that begins to crumble as danger mounts. She tries to keep up the appearances of her normal life, but her two worlds cannot remain entirely separate as she takes bigger and bigger risks to protect this man.
Though just 95 minutes, Chile ‘76 takes time to ramp up as Carmen’s life is transformed by her actions. It moves through its opening act slowly (sometimes too slowly), though its pace matches Carmen’s own unrushed, unbothered state. However, as the film progresses, her level of anxiety rightly increases, raising the tension — and the audience’s blood pressure. Chile ‘76 never escalates into the big set pieces often present in these types of films; instead, a quiet unease exists even in the calmer moments as Carmen realizes how close she has brought the threat to her home, all by merely doing the right thing. Martelli’s script asks what are the consequences when we are forced to confront the evil happening around us, even if we once tried to ignore it.
Chile ‘76 might possess some of the same cool DNA as essentials like Pakula’s All the President’s Men and The Parallax View, but centering the film on a grandmother (admittedly, quite a chic one, thanks to costume designer Pilar Calderon) sets this apart from its predecessors. Those films might have given women a secondary role, but rarely one operating solo, much less in her 50s. Martelli correctly points out that these crises don’t just affect men; they seep into all levels of society and everyone’s personal lives.
Meanwhile, the impeccably tailored clothes from costumer Calderon don’t just contribute to characterization of Carmen’s status and life. They’re also just one piece of the film’s unified look, filled with a saturated palette of scarlet, cobalt, and ochre that is echoed throughout the production design by Estefania Larrain. Cinematographer Soledad Rodríguez captures it all with artful framing and shot composition, catching Carmen in mirrors and through windows, surrounded by primary colors. She’s being watched — perhaps not only by the audience — and it’s impossible to look away, given the beauty on screen.
Chile ‘76 marks an assured debut for Martelli. The easy route would have been for the filmmaker to go bigger for the movie’s thrills, relying on chase sequences and larger-than-life scenes to drive the tension. Instead, it lurks along the edges of Carmen’s domestic existence, making Chile ‘76 feel closer to what reality may have looked like for those under Pinochet’s rule while still creating a powerful, unnerving film.
“Chile ‘76” is out Friday in limited release.