Carmen, a chic abuela, redesigns her vacation home in the midst of Pinochet’s reign of terror in Chile ‘76. Involvement with an injured activist interrupts her daily routine — planning for family visits, reading to a group of blind folks in the town, redecorating the beach house — and forces her to pay closer attention to the horrific actions taken by the military in her country. Aline Küppenheim (A Fantastic Woman) delivers a haunting lead performance in Manuela Martelli’s tense feature directorial debut.
The quiet horror of the film begins with the first scene. The camera focuses on red paint being mixed as Carmen instructs a worker on her desired color; her instructions are interrupted by screams as an unseen woman on the street outside the shop is “disappeared.” The staff and clients of the hardware shop are stunned for a moment, then continue about their daily lives. This color mixing moment is visually alluded to later on, after Carmen has become entangled in a rescue attempt for Elías (Nicolás Sepúlveda in his first film role), the young man her priest (Hugo Medina) convinces her to aid. In Chile ’76, the domestic sphere is thus disrupted by the political.
Carmen’s husband Miguel (Alejandro Goic, No, A Fantastic Woman) and son are both doctors in Santiago – Miguel even operates on military bigwigs – but both are hesitant to donate medical supplies when she asks. Miguel views his wife as a helpmeet, keeping things running in the vacation home while he stays in the city. She confesses to Elías her past wishes to be a doctor, her dreams dashed decades ago by a conservative father who had certain expectations for her as a woman.
Class and gender are pervasive themes in this thriller as Carmen comes from obvious wealth and had previous little exposure to those outside her privileged bubble, besides maid Estelita (Carmen Gloria Martínez). While others in her social circle espouse prejudices against the marginalized citizens of their country, she holds her tongue and takes everything in, hoping she won’t be caught.
The menace and danger of the screenplay, written by director Martelli and Alejandra Moffat, is amplified by the scoring from composer Mariá Portugal. Her music for Chile ’76 incorporates church bells, woodwinds, brass, and synthesizers, adding a chilling effect to the work. The cool blues and neutral tones prevalent in the film’s design recur often enough in the costuming and the sets that any pinks and reds that appear serve as a stark contrast. Such contemplation and consideration by the filmmakers and behind-the-scenes crew, along with Küppenheim’s elegantly taut lead performance, make Chile ‘76 a memorable film as well as an edge-of-your-seat thriller.
Chile ’76 is available via VOD and DVD from Kino Lorber on July 11.