Saying No: a selection of films about the dictatorship in Chile

The news that Pablo Larrain’s film No has become the first Chilean film to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film highlights the forward strides taken by the country’s cinema in recent years, as a number of national productions have gained international recognition and won awards at prestigious festivals around the world (Patricio Guzman’s Nostalgia for The Light and Andrés Wood’s Violeta just two recent examples). No tells the story of the 1988 referendum in which the Chilean population took to the polls to vote on whether to continue with the regime of Augusto Pinochet or return to democracy following fifteen years of military rule. In a hotly fought electoral contest the country finally chose to bring back elections and political freedom and to end a period of turmoil characterized by the repression of individual liberties and systematic human rights abuses.

<em>No</em> is up for an Oscar this year (image courtesy of <em>No</em>)
No is up for an Oscar this year (image courtesy of No)

While No (read the original Revolver review here) is at times a quirky and even humorous film, there can be no denying that its weighty subject matter deals with a deeply turbulent time in Chilean history. The film’s national success emphasizes the importance in Chile of remembering the past and teaching younger generations about the dictatorship, while international attention to the film provides evidence of wide interest in the topic. Nois a strong film in its own right, and essential viewing for anyone who seeks to learn more about this particular historical period, but it is just one of the more recent in a long line of films which have dealt with various aspects of the Pinochet regime. Here is a selection of ‘conventional’ films (documentaries, of which there are many, will be featured in a forthcoming article) that address the subject:

<em>Llueve Sobre Santiago</em> was heavily critical of the armed forces
Llueve Sobre Santiago was heavily critical of the armed forces

Llueve Sobre Santiago (It’s Raining on Santiago, Helvio Soto, 1975)

The Chilean director Soto had been close to the government of Salvador Allende, working in national television and making the state-supported film Voto más Fusil (Vote plus Rifle) which focused on the socialist history of Chile. Soto went into exile in France following the 1973 coup in which Allende was overthrown and the dictatorship established, and it was there that he made Llueve Sobre Santiago. The film provides a dramatic look at the events of 1973, in which the optimism engendered by Allende’s election in 1970 was brutally overthrown by the military and its supporters. Soto empowers the morality of the left in the movie, lionizing Allende and giving a strong sense of nobility to the president’s supporters, made up mainly of factory workers and students, as they bravely resist against the might of the military. It was acclaimed upon its release for its stark portrayal of the tragic events of the coup, and was banned in Chile by the military authorities due to its political content. Soto himself only returned to his homeland after democracy had been returned in the nineties, and died in Santiago at the age of 71 in 2001.

<em>Missing</em> won the Palme d'Or at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival
Missing won the Palme d'Or at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival

Missing (Costa Gavras, 1982)

Probably the most well-known film outside of Chile that deals with the coup and its aftermath, Missing looks at the real-life case of American journalist Charles Horman who was arrested and executed by the military in September 1973. The film stars Jack Lemmon as Horman’s father and Sissy Spacek as his wife as they embark on a frantic search for first Charles’ whereabouts and then answers into what emerges as heavy US involvement in the case. It is a tense political thriller typical of the director (check out his State of Siege for another film on a similar theme) that was critically acclaimed, winning the Palme d’Or at the 1982 Cannes film festival and being nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, with Lemmon and Spacek both receiving nominations in the Best Actor and Actress categories. The film was made in Mexico due to the impossibilities of filming in Chile at the time and was another to be banned by the military regime.

<em>La Frontera</em> is a classic of Chilean cinema
La Frontera is a classic of Chilean cinema

La Frontera (The Frontier, Ricardo Larraín, 1991)

Widely regarded as a classic of Chilean cinema, this was one of the first films to be released following the end of military rule that dealt with the subject. It is the story of Ramiro, a teacher from Santiago who is internally exiled to a small island in the south of Chile as punishment for signing a petition in support of a missing colleague, last seen being bundled into a car by security forces. Once on the island Ramiro is forced to register every eight hours, effectively incarcerating him within a wall-less prison. His sense of isolation is accentuated by the visit of his estranged wife and son, as they address each other from opposite sides of a river, so near yet so far from all he holds dearly. Yet as Ramiro spends more time on the island, he develops relations with the inhabitants, including a diver who provides escapism from the harsh realities of the situation, another political exile in the form of an elderly Spanish man who left Spain during the Franco dictatorship, and particularly in the complicated character of the man’s schoolteacher daughter. When Ramiro’s new world is violently shaken by the forces of nature, the film shifts dramatically on its axis in a finale that shatters the uncomfortable yet serene and at times light-hearted tone, leading to a final scene that is starkly powerful in its delivery and resonates with anger and defiance.

<em>Machuca</em> looks at the coup through the eyes of children
Machuca looks at the coup through the eyes of children

Machuca (Andrés Wood, 2004)

Machuca is a story of two boys from opposite ends of Chile’s social spectrum during the government of Salvador Allende. Gonzalo Infante is a Santiago rich kid who befriends Pedro Machuca, a poor boy who is integrated into a posh school as part of the government’s socialist educational drive. In spite of the class barriers that exist between their separate worlds, the two boys develop a relationship that allows them to see each other’s way of life amid an ominous political situation. Gonzalo is unable to reconcile his parents’ support for regime change, through democratic means or otherwise, with the social improvements instigated by the same system that his parents so rigorously oppose. The director Wood uses the boys’ backgrounds to depict the social conflicts that were rife in Chile at the time and the markedly different affects the coup had on diverse sectors of the population.

<em>Dawson: Isla 10</em> is the story of the survivors of Allende's cabinet
Dawson: Isla 10 is the story of the survivors of Allende's cabinet

Dawson: Isla 10 (Dawson: Island 10, Miguel Littín, 2009)

Following the coup and the death of Salvador Allende, many of the surviving members of the overthrown president’s cabinet were rounded up and sent to a military prison on Dawson Island in the Straits of Magellan, way down in Chile’s frozen south. There they were subjected to grueling labor and extreme discomfort that had profound effects upon the health and spirit of the men. Littín’s film focuses on the difficulties faced by the political prisoners and pays tribute to their resolution and camaraderie, while portraying the total absence of any sort of judicial system in condemning opponents of the military forces. The film is based on the book of the same name by Sergio Bitar, Minister of State under Allende and imprisoned on the island for over a year. Another key character in the film is José Tohá, who was Minister of Interior and Defence in Allende’s government, before being imprisoned and eventually tortured to death by the military in 1974. His daughter, Carolina Tohá, is the municipality of Santiago’s current mayor.

<em>Post Mortem</em> is also from <em>No</em> director Pablo Larraín
Post Mortem is also from No director Pablo Larraín

Post Mortem (Pablo Larraín, 2010)

The second film in No director Larraín’s dictatorship trilogy, sandwiched between 2008’s Tony Manero and this year’s Oscar contender, is a creepy and moody story of a morgue attendant working in Santiago during the coup. As the increasingly fragile peace finally erupts in bloodshed, Alfredo Castro’s character remains apparently oblivious to the violence that is engulfing all around him even as his workplace overflows with bodies. What unfurls is a cold character study that paints everything in a colorless gloom at odds with the horror of the ongoing events. The intensity of the film gradually increases until it arrives at an almost unbearable tension that climaxes in a genuinely shocking finale. Wrapped tightly in a grim layer of misery, Post Mortem is a film far removed from the optimism that surges throughout the narrative of No.

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