Manuela Martelli explores the ripple effects of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in her first film, a sly, evasive genre mashup.
With a travel book in her hands and a cigarette in her fingers, Carmen (Aline Küppenheim) deliberates what shade of paint she’d like for her walls. She wants it like a sunset but not too pink. Maybe a bit blue. After all, it’s not like she goes outside too often. Even her commutes, now to her Las Cruces beach house, are isolated. It’s 1976 in Chile, three years into dictator Augusto Pinochet’s rule. While paint drips onto Carmen’s heels, defectors and accused communists fall in the streets. But hey, she’s got a home to renovate.
She’s just arrived to oversee said renovations while her husband, Miguel (Alejandro Goic), stays in Santiago. He works as a doctor. She dreamt of working in medicine but wasn’t allowed to pursue it. It’s serendipitous, then, when the neighborhood’s Father Sanchez (Hugo Medina) convinces her to look after Elías (Nicolás Sepúlveda). He has a gunshot wound in his leg, wounded because poverty forced him to steal food. Carmen may be wary of him, perhaps with some affluent guilt, but she doesn’t fear him. His political victimhood is clear to the audience and her. Its implications, however, start to seep into her personal life.
Chile ’76 (or 1976 abroad) is Manuela Martelli’s feature directorial debut. It’s an astute one, too, a work of propulsion and intensity despite its distance at points. The blockings and compositions, namely in earlier scenes, border on the mechanical. The camera, all the while, maintains a spatial curiosity, obfuscating the line between subject and setting. Martelli’s camera has a presence just as often as it doesn’t, and by design. The ideas of a home and its caretaker are myths. The paranoia—the very nature surrounding the house—reveals itself to be the truth.
Interiors and exteriors fall into each other at a passive level. This is, after all, Carmen’s story. Thus, the film follows her consistently despite its wavering aloofness. Martelli & Alejandra Moffat’s script is largely refined, economically welcoming, and dismissive of side characters. Küppenheim, all the while, lends Carmen a pragmatism that evades the simplicity the character could have fallen into. Her physicality is, by turns, airy and analytical, commanding the screen in ways the picture follows suit.
When outside, Martelli and cinematographer Yarará Rodríguez elect for pastels. Inside, it’s as if the floors and walls are lit from within, as if Estefania Larrain’s production design is starting to burn from the outside. The music from Mariá Portugal is particularly notable, dissonant and atonal, before congealing into ’70s synth work and classical horns. It’s a swing not many scores take. After all, it’s so conflicting in compositions and intensities it could distract more than anything else. (In one or two moments, it might.)
It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a deft one.
Yet Chile ’76 is slow enough over its hour and a half that the tension proves insidious. Domestic drama for its first half and political thriller for its second, the film cracks open when Carmen finds herself among others radicalizing against Pinochet’s authoritarianism. Martelli & Moffat’s script is skeptical toward domesticity. Characters’ dialogue is largely transactional, coating over the nostalgia—and, often by proxy, conservatism—they exude. But that air of cynicism gives way to pity, destabilizing the film’s mise-en-scène.
That pretense of altruism via religion early on comes to dissipate entirely. The extent of Carmen’s family grows tenuous, and her attempts to retain personal and professional ambitions lead to moments of worry in the final 15 minutes. The camera grows wayward and the pacing propulsive. By the time its climax comes and goes, Chile ’76 abolishes the pieces established. The help of a community, the archetype of a son, the thin barrier between nature and society—they come to falter not necessarily literally but ideologically. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a deft one. If anything’s for certain, Martelli is a director to watch for.
Chile ’76 renovates select theatres now.