Manuela Martelli’s Tense Political Thriller “Chile ’76”

Manuela Martelli’s Tense Political Thriller “Chile ’76”

Manuela Martelli’s Tense Political Thriller Chile ‘76

In her new film, the actor turned director examines the brutality of the Pinochet regime and the oppressive gender politics of the society he ruled.

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What does a kidnapping sound like? It’s a question that Chilean actress cum director Manuela Martelli sets out to answer in the opening scene of her tense new drama, Chile ’76. The movie’s protagonist, Carmen (Aline Küppenheim), is ordering a can of paint for her summer house on the coast when she’s interrupted by the screech of tires. A woman screams, some curses are exchanged, and we hear a car peel away after a brief struggle. Outside, Carmen discovers the victim’s shoe; her own now has a few suggestive drops of pink on its toe.

Set three years into Pinochet’s dictatorship, Chile ’76 tracks Carmen’s evolution from housewife to reluctant resistance fighter over a period of several weeks. While the movie’s title evokes last year’s Argentina, 1985, its sensibilities are more in line with Andreas Fontana’s 2021 Azor—a neo-noir, set in junta-ruled Argentina, that follows a Swiss banker’s search for his missing colleague. Both films illustrate how dictatorship and the mechanisms that sustain it infiltrate every facet of life, whether we’re conscious of it or not. But while Azor offers a meditation on bureaucracy and the banality of evil, Martelli’s feature debut explores the misogyny that is elemental to fascist rule.

Chile ‘76 belongs to Küppenheim’s Carmen. An insomniac, she has transmuted her country’s turn toward barbarism into a mask of fear and despair. Shortly after arriving at her oceanside home from Santiago, she is approached by Padre Sanchez (Hugo Medina), an elderly priest with a confession to make: He’s harboring a thief (Nicolás Sepúlveda) wanted by the authorities. Sanchez admits that his own health is deteriorating, and he beseeches Carmen, a former member of the Red Cross, to nurse the gunshot wound of the man he calls a “starving Christ.”

Needless to say, things are not as they appear. Carmen soon learns that Sanchez’s criminal is a political dissident operating under the name Elias and that the priest is trying to atone for having reported the whereabouts of a young couple in the immediate aftermath of the coup d’état—a mistake that led to their capture and murder. These revelations present Carmen with a moral dilemma. She can either leave Elias to die of his injuries or assume responsibility for his wellbeing and put herself at risk. Operating on the belief that to save one life is to save the world entire, Carmen chooses the latter, setting Martelli’s drama in motion.

Like so many paranoid thrillers from the decade in which the movie is set, Chile ’76 denies its audience any measure of comfort or relief. When Carmen orders medical supplies from a hotel pay phone, we’re never sure if the crackle on the line is Pinochet’s secret police or if there’s simply a bad connection. In another chilling scene, Carmen returns home to find her maid sleeping against the counter in the kitchen at an awkward angle. For several moments, the viewer is left to wonder whether she’s been strangled, possibly as a message to Carmen and her family. But then she rouses and the tension dissipates—if only until her employer’s next clandestine outing.

Part of what makes Chile ’76 so effective is that the violence it depicts always seems to happen just offscreen. Carmen is writing down a list of groceries when we overhear one of the painters tell his coworker, “An army patrol picked them up, and no one’s seen them since.” Later she has a rendezvous with Elias’s comrade Silvia (Yasna Ríos), who convinces her that they’re being followed. It’s yet another false alarm, but Carmen subsequently spots the police covering a body on the beach near her home. A newspaper headline blares the murder of a beautiful young woman. Is it Silvia? Was she discovered? Martelli won’t tell.

Indeed, we only learn of Elias’s capture when Carmen tries to bring him a new pair of boots and discovers that his room adjacent to Father Sanchez’s church has been ransacked. A stricken servant informs her that he’s been abducted. “This is horrifying” are the only words that she can muster. Carmen returns home with a cake for her granddaughter, and the movie ends with one of the bleaker renditions of “Happy Birthday” ever committed to film.

Martelli understands the horrific potential of that which is heard but not seen, and she employs sound in her film to maximal effect. While Mariá Portugal’s synth score for Chile ’76 is alternately spooky and jarring, at times channeling Wendy Carlos’s sound in A Clockwork Orange, perhaps nothing is as sinister as Pinochet’s words themselves. Midway through the film, Carmen is watching television with her grandchildren when they’re interrupted by a national address. We see an army procession and a bevy of national flags, but Martelli cuts away before the real-life monster appears on screen. Carmen’s grandson changes the channel to no avail; the dictator has thrust himself into the homes of the Chilean people. “Chile was a destroyed nation, a society with a broken spirit, and a social structure that was divided and corrupt,” he says. “A reorganization was needed on all fronts, and we introduced various measures to achieve this.”

At once stoic and vulnerable, Küppenheim is astonishing as a woman living under the yoke of a profoundly patriarchal society. Over the course of the movie, we learn that her conservative father denied her the opportunity to pursue a career in medicine and that she suffered a nervous breakdown while on vacation with her children. Both of these incidents take place long before Pinochet’s rise to power. During the events of the film, Carmen is subjected to all manner of gender-based aggressions, but perhaps none more unsettling than that of a café patron who wipes the mustard off her mouth with a napkin. “You should leave soon, madame,” he warns her. “You don’t want to miss curfew.” Whether or not he’s an operative for the regime is ultimately beside the point. Martelli understands that autocracy and violence toward women are reinforcing worldviews.

Chile ’76 arrives at an especially fraught moment for Chilean democracy. In a sharp rebuke to President Gabriel Boric, conservatives recently won a majority of seats on a new committee to rewrite the country’s dictatorship-era constitution. Nearly 35 percent of the votes went to a far-right Republican Party led by former presidential candidate José Antonio Kast—a Pinochet apologist and staunch opponent of legal abortion. Martelli’s film, while quiet and subtle, helps alert us to precisely what’s at stake, what this form of reaction has produced before and what it still can.

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