Manuela Martelli’s new film examines the Pinochet dictatorship through the eyes of a woman who never intended to play an active role.
By Teo Bugbee
May 4, 2023“Chile ’76”NYT Critic’s PickDirected by Manuela MartelliDrama1h 35mFind Tickets
In 1973, the socialist government of Chile was overthrown by a military junta led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, with the backing of the United States. Thousands were killed, and hundreds of thousands fled the country under Pinochet’s dictatorship, which lasted for 17 years and was maintained through violence.
With the new film “Chile ’76,” the director Manuela Martelli joins the company of Chilean filmmakers like Pablo Larraín and Sebastián Leilo, who have made thought-provoking movies reflecting on the Pinochet regime and its impact on the lives of everyday people. Martelli’s initial inspiration for the story came from a source close to home. She imagined the loss felt by her grandmother, who died by suicide in 1976, one of the most violent years of the dictatorship, before Martelli was born.
The protagonist of “Chile ’76” is Carmen (Aline Küppenheim), a regal woman of middle age. She’s a grandmother and a career flight attendant who now lives a comfortably bourgeois lifestyle with her husband in Santiago. When the story begins, she’s in the process of overseeing renovations to her family’s beachside vacation home. Carmen occupies her time alone with charitable work, guided by the sanguine priest of the town, Father Sánchez (Hugo Medina).
Carmen is discomforted by the sanctioned brutality around her — early on, she witnesses distraught neighbors being dragged away in the streets. But Carmen’s comfortable existence is not directly disrupted until Father Sánchez asks her to care for a fugitive hidden in the church. She acquiesces, nursing Elías (Nicolás Sepúlveda), a wounded revolutionary, back to health. She transports antibiotics for his injuries, and lies to the suspicious authorities to cover her tracks. Anxiety becomes Carmen’s constant companion as telephones buzz on lines that might be tapped, and neighbors pry, posing inconvenient questions.
Martelli’s film demonstrates remarkable skill in reconstructing he time period, giving consideration both to recreating the appearance of the era and its emotional tenor. She filmed in beach towns that have remained relatively unaltered since the ’70s, and she complements the look of crumbling building facades with wood-paneled interior sets. It’s a world that’s both worn and warm; even the wallpaper comes in cozy plaid.
Yet Martelli’s detailed, beautiful frames aren’t signs of empty aestheticism. Her eye for composition mirrors that of her protagonist, a person of elegant tastes who is drawn into a political plot that intrudes upon her capacity to redesign. The film’s original score blends electronic and orchestral music, and acts as an indicator of Carmen’s justified paranoia, entering in moments when her routines are most disturbed. As an entrant into the growing canon of Chilean films responding to the Pinochet dictatorship, “Chile ’76” is a sly genre exercise, an example of how political repression can squeeze a domestic melodrama until it takes the shape of a spy thriller.
Not rated. In Spanish, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes. In theaters.