When Augusto Pinochet seized power in Chile via a military coup in 1973, the dark era that followed had repercussions for decades. Thousands and thousands were killed or “disappeared,” families were torn apart, and dissidents were brutally silenced. The scars and wounds from that time are still healing, and the discussion of what happened during those years is still a difficult one in the country. Unfortunately, none of the potentially incendiary drama that one might expect from a film set during that time can be found in “Colonia.” Instead, the rather routine thriller that glances against the politics and fear during Pinochet’s time in power, and the decision to tell the story through a pair of foreigners, also does much to mute some of the impact of the tale.
Daniel Bruhl plays the handsome German activist Daniel. He’s only been in Chile for a few months, but in that time, he has become a key figure in the movement that’s behind Allende. He has no shortage of allies, but his heart belongs to beautiful flight attendant Lena (Emma Watson). Her job flies her into the country fairly often and her latest trip finds her arriving during a particularly charged time, with talk of possible civil war breaking out. Instead, after some relationship-establishing romance, Daniel and Lena wake up to find the coup underway. Daniel’s friends are rounded up, and when he hits the streets to try and photograph what’s happening, he’s snatched up as well. Identified by a hooded figure as an Allende supporter, he’s whisked away to Colonia Dignidad — Dignity Colony — which in Orwell-worthy irony, is actually a cult camp/torture prison. Lena tries to get the rest of Daniel’s activist buddies to band together and rescue her boyfriend, but when they demur, she takes it upon herself to infiltrate the camp and get him herself.
The plot takes a turn for the far-fetched when, disguising herself as a woman dedicated to the Lord, Lena makes her way to Colonia Dignidad, where she’s allowed to join with little questioning, and soon has her eyes opened to the freaky goings on at the camp. Men and women are separated and live apart from each other, adhere to a lifestyle of celibacy, toil in the fields, and are subject to physical, emotional, and psychological abuse at the slightest infraction. Meanwhile, their moods are controlled by daily forced dosages of pills. And running the whole machine is ex-Nazi Paul Schäfer (Michael Nyqvist), who rules with a ruthless, sadistic hand, while colluding with Pinochet officials to provide them with arms and poison gas (in a plot thread that’s left dangling and unexplored).
As Lena gets embedded in the camp, she begins her hunt for Daniel. He’s been subjected to brutal rounds of electrocution in an attempt to get him to name the accomplices he worked with for Allende. However, he keeps his mouth shut, and thinking he’s been too brain damaged to be of any value, he’s released into the camp. But alas, it’s all a ruse, with Daniel playing mentally disabled (seriously) as a cover to document the atrocities at the camp, and plot his escape.
While the film is based on an actual camp, co-writer and director Florian Gallenberger (“John Rabe,” “Shadows Of Time”)’s picture is so broad that the setting is of little consequence, as the rote genre elements take the foreground. Schäfer, as played by Nyqvist, is all seethe and storm, and the character feels like it would be more appropriate in a Bond film than in a period picture and political drama. Moreover, as Daniel and Lena plot their way out of the camp, it’s only at the end of the film, in the mandatory on-screen footnotes, that we learn more the extent of Colonia Dignidad’s horrors, including collusion with German embassy officials (though the fact it was an American who designed the torture chambers was left out). But this is the kind of information that should bolster the drama and tension during the movie, not get tossed on as last minute texture at the end.
There is a lack of confidence in the film-making (that also effects the audience) that is felt throughout the movie, and it is most noticeable anytime the overwrought score comes piping through the cinema speakers, which is far too often. Almost every action undertaken by the lead characters is accompanied by Fernando Velázquez (the upcoming “Crimson Peak”)’s compositions, cranked up to ear-shattering levels. Overall, Bruhl and Watson, two very capable performers, never get the chance to imbue the picture with the sensitivity it needs, with Gallenberg overcompensating behind the camera, and failing them on the page.
Working at cross-purposes, “Colonia” tries to have it both ways, wanting to be a shocking true story drama and a riveting piece of movie-making. It’s not intelligent enough to accumulate any emotional payoff, and it’s too generic and unsophisticated in its execution to work purely as popcorn entertainment. The cast deserves better, as does the audience, and more importantly, so do the actual victims of Colonia Dignidad. “Colonia” opens the history books, but doesn’t turn the pages. [D]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.