A long-retired Red Cross nurse whose only real plans for the winter of 1976 involve redesigning the inside of her family’s beach house and planning her granddaughter’s seven birthday party, Carmen — played by the elegantly unraveling Aline Kuppenheim — spends her days fussing around with the furniture and waiting for her doctor husband to return from Santiago on the weekend, oblivious to the discordant electric daggers of the Mariá Portugal score that cuts a hole into the soundscape around her. She dreams of a living room that’s soaked in the kiss-pink shade of a Venetian sunset, and at one point is so entranced by a vat of swirling paint that she hardly seems to hear the screams of a young leftist as they’re disappeared off a nearby street in broad daylight.
But Carmen is not quite as callous as her Westchester chic wardrobe might suggest. The empathy that once inspired her to be a nurse is still in there somewhere, lying dormant behind the veil of indifference (or denial) that has allowed her to be unbothered by three years of horrifically violent authoritarian rule. There’s a reason why she volunteers to read to the blind, even if that charitable activity belies her own inability to see what’s happening in the world around her. Likewise, there’s a reason why the local priest only trusts Carmen — of all people — to secretly care for a wounded Communist who needs someone to stitch up the hole in his leg, and maybe even understudy his dangerous role in the fight against Pinochetism.
Based on that premise, Manuela Martelli’s “Chile ’76” would appear to set up a straightforward paranoid thriller about the moral awakening of a bourgeois housewife. And yet this low-heat but shrewdly compelling debut subverts the reluctant savior narrative from the minute it starts, as Carmen embraces the priest’s clandestine assignment (and doesn’t flinch after she learns the full truth about her patient). What follows from there is an intimate psychosocial character study that — true to the film’s title — unfolds at a national scale. This isn’t a story about one affluent woman’s gradual radicalization against authoritarianism, it’s a story about the illusion of not taking sides.
Like the mixed paints that Martelli turns into a recurring motif, their colors melting together without a canvas, there’s no separating the personal from the political. That realization dawns slowly on Carmen, whose penchant for self-medicating her “neuroses” feels like a symptom of a broader denial; as does her decision to abscond to the family beach house each winter, where she can stare at the sea and swan around in a sleek collection of blue dresses and black slacks. For all of her day-dreaming, however, Carmen soon discovers that every inch of Chile is shadowed by the same nightmare (by 1976, no place on Earth was safe from the reach of Pinochet’s regime, as Martelli’s film acknowledges in heartbreaking detail).
“Chile ’76” is only a few minutes old before Carmen begins to nurse the handsome young Communist her priest friend is hiding from the authorities, but just as she’s spent the last three years deluding herself about the coup and its casualties, it takes some time for her to understand what kind of movie she’s in. Even after Carmen begins relaying her patient’s life-or-death messages to other members of his network — a process that involves code names, secret drops, and covering her tracks in order to lose any possible tails — much of her focus remains on her granddaughter’s birthday party.
Once she lived in denial of Pinochet’s homicidal dictatorship, and now she lives in denial of her role in the resistance to it. The atonal instability of Toru Takemitsu-esque score begins to blare over the soundtrack like a muffled siren in the middle of a windstorm, while the cold sterility of Martelli’s direction renders Carmen’s personal sense of involvement even more irrelevant. There’s no excusing herself from this narrative, and there never was.
Martelli’s gauzy script (co-written by Alejandra Moffat) never forces us to forgive Carmen’s privileged remove from the terrors of Pinochetism, nor does it ever explicitly articulate the character’s growing sympathies for the leftists whom she risks her life to help (Carmen readily confesses that she wouldn’t have agreed to help the young man if she knew he was an enemy of the state). Kuppenheim — who looks strikingly young to be a grandmother several times over — embodies Carmen with a virility that suggests she might take some pleasure in reconnecting to her not-so-distant youth, but her growing paranoia gradually overshadows the fun of getting her groove back.
How gradually that happens is up for debate, as “Chile ’76” only sinks deeper into subjective psychological territory as its political intrigue grows more intense. Other tellings of this story might place a greater weight on the papers that go missing from Carmen’s glovebox, or provide a clearer answer as to Carmen’s role in the off-screen death of a minor character she meets along the way, but Martelli is more — or even exclusively — interested in how profoundly these happenings rattle her protagonist. If the film starts with Carmen feeling worlds away from someone being abducted right in front of her face, it ends with her being so consumed by her country’s political violence that she can’t even exchange pleasantries with a stranger without assuming that he has an ulterior motive, or that a single wrong word might result in the death of someone she holds dear.
That transformation is subtle and spiraling and sometimes even anti-dramatic, as any radical intrusion on Carmen’s white collar life would intrude on the safety of her social status and/or force her to make a clear choice in a film that’s so compelled by the choices that people don’t even realize they’re making. That approach can suck too much of the air out of a movie that wants to be suffocating but not overly suspenseful, and “Chile ’76” has a tendency to sand off its edges whenever any of its thriller elements risk becoming too sharp. But Carmen’s story is meant to end with a whimper, and not a bang. There’s no victory here, nor any climactic defeat, only the bone-deep awareness that authoritarianism anywhere is authoritarianism everywhere. At a certain point there’s no such thing as “not my problem.” At a certain point, no one’s safety is guaranteed.
Kino Lorber will release “Chile ’76” in New York theaters on Friday, May 5. It will open at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles on Friday, May 19.