The Spirit of Alan J. Pakula Lives in Chile ’76

Movies Reviews Manuela Martelli
The Spirit of Alan J. Pakula Lives in Chile ’76

Decades after his death, Alfred Hitchcock’s name is still instinctively used to describe taut political thrillers like Manuela Martelli’s feature debut, Chile ’76. Set 3 years after Augusto Pinochet overthrew Salvador Allende, the film steeps in unease for 90 minutes; it’s the product of a nation contemporarily inclined toward fractured partisan politics, as if Martelli intends for her audience to face the historical rearview as a reminder of what happens to democracies when they catch a case of hyper-polarization. (They go up in flames. That’s what happens.)

The first appropriate qualifier for Chile ’76 that anyone should reach for is “urgent.” But rather than “Hitchcockian,” the second qualifier should be “Pakulan.” Chile ’76 shares in common the same pliable atmospheric sensibility as the movies of Alan J. Pakula; Martelli roots her plot in realism one moment, then surrealism the next, oscillating between a sharp-lined authenticity and dreamlike paranoia. Martelli shoots for something firmer than Hitchcock melodrama, something viewers can throw their hands against, something that, even for American audiences, feels terribly recognizable despite being distant in terms of years and substance. We haven’t had a Pinochet-style takeover here in these United States. We haven’t even had an attempt at a Pinochet-style takeover; the January 6th insurrection was a clown fiesta compared with the 1973 Chilean coup d’état.

Successful or not, serious or not, government-backed or not, moments like January 6th should echo through the hearts and minds of Martelli’s viewers when they sit down for Chile ’76. It’s a warning shot across the bow: Beware, or be under the thumb of a brutal dictatorship. Carmen (Aline Küppenheim), Martelli’s protagonist, lives that way, though she tries not to think about it. The film opens with her poring over an Italian travel guide at a paint shop, painstakingly searching for the right shades of pink and blue for her new beach house; maybe she’s particular, or maybe she finds particularity a distraction from state-sponsored kidnappings conducted in broad daylight. Either way, as Carmen browses color swatches, a woman is snatched off the street by anonymous thugs, and she screams her lungs out. 

Martelli doesn’t show her face. We get to know what’s happening; we don’t get to see who it’s happening to, and we never learn why. Carmen doesn’t ignore the incident, per se, but she keeps her innermost feelings about it to herself. You might imagine her identifying as “apolitical” when pressed; it isn’t until her friendly neighborhood priest, Father Sanchez (Hugo Medina), quietly approaches her with the task of caring for Elías (Nicolás Sepúlveda), a so-called common criminal suffering from a gunshot wound, that Carmen is forced out of her neutral comfort zone. Elías isn’t so common, it turns out. He’s fleeing Pinochet’s version of the Gestapo. Carmen’s candy-coated existence cracks apart. She sees her world for what it is: A waking nightmare where eyes are everywhere, and anyone might happily turn Elías, and her, over to the police if they’re given reason to.

Martelli’s camera, coolly steered by Soledad Rodríguez, stays at Küppenheim’s side. In shot after shot, her face is the subject; Küppenheim invests Carmen with a placid, dignified expressive range, but carefully betrays the character’s emotions the more time she spends with Elías and comes to know him. Politics aren’t her pastime or passion. Big deal. (Maybe that’s why Sanchez comes to her in the first place, though the fact that she used to be a Red Cross nurse doesn’t hurt either.) It’s a credit to Carmen that she doesn’t rat out Sanchez and Elías immediately, at a time when basic compassion could get you killed. But it’s also a knock on her that it takes an extreme circumstance for her to care, or even to recognize the ills done against innocent people, in a dictator’s name.

That’s Chile ’76’s soul, the plea Martelli makes to those of us watching: Complacency is a choice we make for ourselves, whose repercussions wind up impacting others. Sitting idly by in our social bubbles as inhumanity rampages around us has a moral cost. The film doesn’t condemn Carmen, or the viewer, because that, too, would constitute some kind of inhumane thought; if anything Martelli is an optimist, her belief being that when faced with incontrovertible proof of genuine government tyranny, the average citizen will do their part to buck the system even if it might mean getting disappeared by the bully president’s goon squad. The sensation of the film, on the other hand, is suspicion, the relentless and sickening notion that nobody can be trusted. Whether the thrumming electronic soundtrack or Rodríguez’s photography, composed to the point of feeling suffocating, Chile ’76 drives that anxiety like a knife in the heart.

“Parasites,” says Raquel (Antonia Zegers), a friend of Carmen and her husband Miguel (Alejandro Goic), spoiling a pleasant evening yacht ride. “Traitors to our country. That hospital of yours is infected with communists.” Her husband, Osvaldo (Marcial Tagle), tries to soothe her, but she’s on a rant, whose effect Carmen feels so strongly that she hurls her guts into the water; it’s the moment where she separates fully from the person she was before meeting Elías, and is christened by bile as a new woman, painfully aware of Chile’s ugliest truths. You think you know the company you keep, and then out of the blue they advocate for authoritarian rule while spouting nationalist talking points. Chile ’76 never encourages our wariness of our loved ones, but it may, for those who have lost parents and uncles and aunts to Fox News or worse, reflect how men like Pinochet reveal the worst of people in whom we dearly wish to see the best. 

Director: Manuela Martelli
Writers: Manuela Martelli, Alejandra Moffat
Starring: Aline Küppenheim, Nicolás Sepúlveda, Hugo Medina, Alejandro Goic, Antonia Zegers, Marcial Tagle
Release Date: May 5, 2023

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.

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