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Film review: 1976

27 March 2023

Stephen Brown reviews a tale of moral courage in Pinochet’s Chile

Aline Kuppenheim (centre) as Carmen in 1976

Aline Kuppenheim (centre) as Carmen in 1976

MANUELA MARTELLI’s film 1976 (Cert. 15), Sutherland Prizewinner for Best First Feature at the London Film Festival, is a timely reminder of Chile’s brutal regime under Augusto Pinochet — and also of the Roman Catholic Church’s attempts through the Vicariate of Solidarity to address human-rights abuses, not least regarding the “disappeared”. The film gives us an example of the Church’s sheltering opponents of the dictatorship.

Carmen (Aline Küppenheim), while renovating the family beach house, is approached by her priest, Fr Sanchez (Hugo Medina). Can she secretly nurse Elías (Nicolás Sepúlveda), a wounded young man? It gradually becomes apparent that he is more than the “starving Christ” depicted by Sanchez.

The film begins in a paint store. The affluent Carmen agonises over the exact shade of pink for her walls. Outside, off camera, a struggle is heard. A woman yells that she is “being taken”. Back indoors, the colour-mixer drips paint on to Carmen’s shoe, in a shot representative of an administration steeped in blood. Ironically, the chosen shade was inspired by the Doge Palace’s colour, somewhere that imprisonment and torture regularly occurred.

The film combines a political thriller with an intriguing portrait of Carmen’s spiritual development. Martelli has learnt a thing or two from other filmmakers. The drone-like soundtrack threatens like a David Lynch movie; the paranoia of Coppola’s The Conversation is matched by many a Hitchcockian flourish.

What we have here is much more than political pamphleteering over past iniquities, thanks to Küppenheim’s outstanding performance. Viewers share her sinking feeling as she traverses unfamiliar geographical and social territory. Shielded hitherto, like a guilty bystander, Carmen is roused from middle-class ennui as she discovers how fear eats away a country’s soul. The cost of discipleship is not lost on her.

Carmen’s Christian faith is mainly unstated. She does utter a few Hail Marys when she is stopped by a patrol. Implicitly, she rejects succumbing to the cheap grace — as described by Bonhoeffer — of remaining inactive when faced with evil. Sanchez, already aware of misspent moments past, makes his confession to this laywoman. He betrayed some young people in his care, who were later found assassinated. Absolution will consist of not repeating the same failure of nerve, and of submitting this time (Bonhoeffer again) “to the yoke of Christ”.

Carmen’s ethical compromises are different. Irrespective of who rules politically, bourgeois life is like the goldfish bowl that we see earlier. Middle-class culture is one of watchfulness, where p’s and q’s really matter. She is, in that respect, accomplished at appearing to live one way while subtly behaving subversively. It stands her in good stead with regard to matters of life and death.

Nevertheless, there are enough indications throughout the film that she may be under scrutiny, and that her faithful endeavours could become a Via Dolorosa. Another overhead shot — red dollops of food colouring plop into white icing, reminiscent of the drip of paint — is just as symbolic. A neighbour has just returned to her some papers stolen from her car. “Try to be more careful next time,” he says knowingly. “You won’t always be this lucky.” Difficult choices lie ahead for her. It is a Gethsemane moment.

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