Walking at a good New Yorker’s clip, you would need about fifteen minutes to go between Film Forum and the World Trade Center site: a straight shot down Varick Street from three cozy screening rooms and fresh-made popcorn to the remains of a mass grave. I sketch this geography to suggest what September 11, 2001, meant to the Film Forum staff, and to clarify the meaning of their decision to commemorate the other September 11 attack: the one that killed Salvador Allende in 1973.
The calendar links these two events, and so too does the roughest kind of arithmetic. About as many people died at the World Trade Center as were snatched up and murdered by the Pinochet regime. Because the United States helped install and maintain that dictatorship, you might imagine that Film Forum is also connecting these Septembers politically. You would not be entirely wrong; after presenting Patricio Guzmán’s new documentary, The Pinochet Case (on view through September 24), the theater will continue its Chilean theme by showing The Trials of Henry Kissinger. But if you know the Manhattan streets, you will realize this schedule doesn’t mean to explain–or, worse, to excuse–the criminals who destroyed the Twin Towers. Rather, the Film Forum staff have added sorrow to sorrow, looking beyond themselves and their neighbors to others who are neglected at this moment. Generosity inspires this programming choice, along with hope–precisely the qualities that shine through The Pinochet Case.
If you remember the dangerous immediacy of Guzmán’s now-classic The Battle of Chile, you may be surprised to see The Pinochet Case begin as a landscape film. Guzmán sets the tone by showing views of mountains under a clear blue sky, as glimpsed from a car on a lonely highway. A little time passes before the car reaches its destination: a site where corpses were dumped. Two fully clothed men, breathing and fidgeting, lie on the ocher ground to show where the remains were found. By the very inadequacy of their imposture, these surrogates hint at a horror you can’t imagine; and maybe they suggest as well that this place belongs to the living. Nothing is left of the victims except for a few fragments–precious to the forensic experts–and the memories borne by their families, who have come here with Guzmán so they can testify to what cannot be seen or heard. A woman speaks of her missing son, meanwhile fingering a photograph that she has slung around her neck. A man recalls his missing brother by reciting a song lyric by Victor Jara: “The spring will come from your heart.” He says the line several times over; and somehow, in this place of natural beauty and man-made bitterness, he doesn’t choke on the words.
The Pinochet Case belongs to witnesses like these. They sit for their portraits, singly or in groups, sometimes while the moving camera seems to caress their faces. They talk about whatever was hardest for them to endure. (For Nelly, it was admitting that her missing husband would never use the suitcase she packed for him. For Gabriela, who was tortured and raped, it was seeing others killed.) Above all, these witnesses hold out. “My revenge,” Luisa says, “is just staying alive.”
Not subsisting–staying alive. For Luisa and other witnesses, that meant compiling data that Chilean society preferred to ignore, pressing lawsuits that Chilean courts refused to hear, seeking justice that seemed unattainable even after Pinochet stepped down. Underneath the forms of democracy, as one witness explains, Chile remained unchanged, since the thousands who had cooperated in state terror were still around, still powerful, still unwilling to see their deeds uncovered. And yet, “The spring will come from your heart.” The witnesses went on expecting justice–and suddenly, in 1998, they got it.
Narrating the story with brisk reverence for its heroes, The Pinochet Case explains how Spanish prosecutor Carlos Castressana ingeniously recognized that “crimes against humanity” are by definition the business of all courts everywhere. Charges of torture and political murder could therefore be brought against Augusto Pinochet in a Spanish court, even though the crimes took place in Chile. Judge Baltasar Garzón accepted this argument and began to hear testimony–quixotically, it seemed, since no one imagined there would be a trial. But then Castressana and Garzón had the further insight that if their court could enter charges, it could also request extradition. They sprang upon Pinochet during his annual visit to London. All at once, the Senator for Life found himself under house arrest, while the British legal system began fitfully to strip away his immunity from prosecution.
Another surprise: While The Pinochet Case is meditative and leisurely when dealing with the witnesses, it becomes lively and even raucous when it details the court proceedings in England. Part of this energy comes from the polyrhythmic demonstrations that sprang up around Pinochet. (Wherever he was, Chileans and their supporters turned out in force, to bang on drums and shout “Murderer!”) Another part of the film’s energy comes from the personalities of the lawyers–Castressana, for example, is memorably forceful when he speaks of the historic ties he feels with the Chileans–and still more is contributed by the filmmaker himself. Guzmán illustrates the legal tactics with a chessboard; the political maneuvering with some patched-in footage of Margaret Thatcher, who paid a courtesy call on Pinochet during his period of house arrest. “I’m very much aware,” she intoned for his benefit and the camera’s, “that it’s you who brought democracy to Chile.”
What kind of laughter should those words arouse? If I know my New York audiences, a jeer will greet them. We’re good at jeering, and Thatcher deserves it. What haunts me about The Pinochet Case, though, is a far different expression of amusement: the bright smile of one of the witnesses toward the end of the movie. She has lived to see Pinochet humiliated; she knows the history books in her country can no longer pass over his crimes; and although full justice has hardly been done, although killers live unmolested all around her, she speaks with a tone of laughter in her voice, a laughter without spite. The killers, she says, are ashamed before their children; but we, we are free.
In September 2002, in New York City, The Pinochet Case is a gift.
Short Takes: The Method actor and the sensitive young junkie emerged together in film history. New versions of the rebellious city boy, scruffy yet soft and inward-looking, they both elected to hunch over a pain in the gut, seeming to protect and even savor the inner flaws that made them writhe.
Half a century later, those figures are still with us, most recently in a Warner Bros. release titled City by the Sea and in a film from China, Quitting. Both are based-on-a-true-story movies; both are exercises in acting. Only one of them touches on the social disaffection that used to spark these now-mythical types.
Directed by Michael Caton-Jones from a screenplay by Ken Hixon, City by the Sea stars Robert DeNiro as a police detective whose long-abandoned junkie son (James Franco) is now wanted for murder. The dialogue is thick with intergenerational doom; the images with establishing shots, as the action bounces between lower Manhattan (where the cop lives and works) and the derelict boardwalk of Long Beach, the son’s all-too-symbolic hangout. But the real locus of interest is the face and body of DeNiro, who once might have played the son but now has grown meaty and measured, avuncular if not exactly paternal. You spend the movie admiring his self-control but waiting for the performance to start, until it finally does, on schedule, at the very end. Too bad the acting doesn’t benefit the son. The turmoil in this pretty-good picture serves only DeNiro, helping him say farewell to his Method youth to settle comfortably into a chair at the beach.
So I prefer Quitting by Zhang Yang, a fiction film in which young actor Jia Hongsheng, playing himself, re-enacts his years of drug addiction, his struggles with his family (who also play themselves) and his time spent in a psychiatric hospital. Directed and performed with a mercifully light touch, the movie is full of telling details, not just about the characters but about their world: Jia’s contempt for his parents’ “peasant” manner of speech and dress, for example, or his fascination with Western youth culture, meaning drugs, rock and roll and Method acting. (On the door of his room hangs a poster of DeNiro in Taxi Driver.) All this is right on the surface, unlike Jia’s sexual orientation; but if you’ve got an eye for tight blue jeans and midriff T-shirts, maybe that theme, too, comes to light.