Chile ’76

Carmen (Aline Küppenheim, "A Fantastic Woman"), the conservative upper middle class wife of a Santiago doctor, is consumed with renovations on their seaside winter vacation home.  When she arrives with her housekeeper Estela (Carmen Gloria Martínez), she’s immediately paid a visit by Father Sánchez (Hugo Medina), an old friend whose visit she clearly anticipates, having brought clothing donations for both him and the local children.  But Sanchez also asks for her help treating a young man, Father Elías (Nicolás Sepúlveda), he says was shot for stealing food, but as she gets to know Elias, Carmen finds herself becoming a member of the Pinochet opposition in “Chile ’76.”

Laura's Review: B+

Inspired by the grandmother she never met who committed suicide in her film’s titular year, cowriter (with "The Wolf House's" Alejandra Moffat)/director Manuela Martelli has created a character study of a woman who finds the evils of the political forces her set aligns with seeping into her personal life.  Martelli builds suspense along with Carmen’s dawning social awareness, her film becoming a paranoid thriller before its devastating conclusion.

Martelli grabs us by the throat with her riveting opening.  A well dressed woman we will learn is Carmen is trying to have paint matched to a photograph of a Venetian sunset.  After telling the clerk it ‘needs more blue,’ a commotion can be heard in the street outside.  A woman screams her name and what sounds like shots are fired before cars race away.  The shop owners pull down their window blinds, complaining that this is the third time this has happened this week.  Marcela takes her paint, drops of which have spattered on her navy pump like blood spray and departs, finding another woman’s shoe laying in the gutter.

After leaving Santiago for the seashore, Carmen goes to the priest’s home and cleans the young man’s wound, removing the bullet from his thigh.  She uses the phone at a local hotel to call her husband Miguel (Alejandro Goic, "No," "The Club"), asking him to bring antibiotics with a made up story about a young girl’s botched abortion, but he rebuffs her illegal request.  Later, she’ll go to a local hospital with a story about an injured dog.

As workmen finish up Carmen’s renovations, family members come and go, Miguel arriving with their doctor son Tomás (Gabriel Urzúa), daughter Leonor (Amalia Kassai) arriving with three energetic grandchildren.  Getting home late after going to a meeting point to get information about moving Elias out of Sanchez’s home, Carmen makes excuses, but when she takes her grandkids to the beach she cannot keep them from seeing a dead woman on the beach surrounded by police.  As her involvement ramps up (she seems delighted with her codename, Cleopatra, Elias telling her they will name a hospital after her when ‘this is all over’), Carmen begins to hear distortion on the public phone she uses, is aware of people following her and has her car ransacked in a remote location.  Stopping at a rural roadside café to lose a suspected tail, Carmen is questioned too closely by a patron who seems to know too much about that murdered woman on the beach.  Listening to friends, Muguel’s boss Osvaldo (Marcial Tagle, "No") and his wife Raquel (Antonia Zegers, "No"), out on their boat proves so upsetting, Carmen wretches under cover of seasickness.           

Everything comes to a head on the day Carmen’s convinced her daughter the vacation home will be ready to celebrate a granddaughter’s birthday.  Miguel calls as she bakes a cake, a leering neighbor returning papers from her car.   Everything seems to be painting Carmen into a corner as she invites guests into her chicly renovated home with the wall she painted herself in the color of a Venetian sunset.

Behind the scenes we find a mostly female crew with cinematographer Soledad Rodríguez frequently photographing Carmen in front of and behind glass, production designer Estefania Lorrain contrasting Carmen’s evolving respite by the sea with the humbler abodes of the oppressed.  Sound designer Jesica Suarez’s work is integral, from the distant sounds of Pinochet’s terror and the roar of the sea which claims his victims to the distortion reflecting Carmen’s state of mind.  Mariá Portugal's odd but effective score evolves from unnerving whistles to eerie percussive synth.

“Chile ‘76” is a stark reminder of the insidious tentacles of authoritarian dictatorships with Küppenheim’s Carmen presumably entitled elite taking us by the hand to witness the result of having a moral compass within Pinochet’s regime.

Robin's Review: B+

The title of this latest film by Chilean director Manuella Martelli sets the stage for a tale about a woman, Carmen (Aline Kuppenheim), living in Santiago, who abruptly realizes that her comfortable and pampered life has shielded her from the political reality of her country’s violent turmoil in “Chile ’76.”

It has been three years since the violent overthrow of the democratically-elected Allende government in Chile by the military junta led by General Augusto Pinochet. That dictatorship held the people of Chile in its iron grip until 1990.

For Carmen, the past years have been prosperous ones for her and her physician husband, Miguel (Alejandro Goic). She is on a mission to spruce up their summer home and heads there with buckets of special paint, ready to begin work. Before that, though, at her home in the capital, she hears a violent confrontation just outside and a woman’s scream. All she finds is one of the woman’s well-worn shoes in the gutter.

When she gets to the vacation home, the pastor of the local church, Padre Sanchez (Hugo Madina), asks her to take care of an injured young man. What she does not know is that his injury is a gunshot wound. With the oppressive dictatorship in charge of the country, Carmen risks her life and that of her family by helping to care for Elias (Nicolas Sepulveda).

She takes more risks trying to get antibiotics for Elias by fabricating a story about her sick dog. What the story is about is one woman’s decision to not bow down to the powers that be, facing her fear to do the right thing and save the life of the young man.

Some may think that a story set after the overthrow of a legal government and its subsequent dictatorship should be overtly political. If you dig just below the surface, you realize that it IS a political story, but one more subtle and personal and with a distinctly femme POV by director and co-writer Martelli (with Alejandra Moffat).

We have had a few politically historical films coming out of South America, like “Argentina 1985,” chronicling the changes from Right to Left and vice versa. Some are heart-on-the-sleeve emotives on justice, others are straightforward docudramas, and some, like “Chile ’76,” are stories of realization and quiet activism. I like the variety.

Kino Lorber released “Chile ‘76” in select theaters on 5/5/23 and it is still expanding – click here for play dates.  It is also available digitally on 7/11/23.