The Long Shadow of Augusto Pinochet

Jaime Vadell in Pablo Larraín’s El Conde (2023)

On September 11, 1973, Chilean armed forces led by General Augusto Pinochet—and covertly supported by the CIA and the Nixon administration—overthrew the democratically elected president, Salvador Allende. Novelist and playwright Ariel Dorfman was serving in the Allende government at the time as a cultural and press adviser. In a moving essay for the New York Review of Books on Chile’s dashed hopes and current challenges, Dorfman notes that from the day Allende took office in the fall of 1970, “forces from inside and outside the country had been conspiring to destroy his attempt—the first in world history—to build a socialist state through nonviolent, democratic means.”

Starting Thursday in New York and next month in Vienna, several screenings at various venues will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the coup d’état that reverberated all across Latin America and locked Chile into a military dictatorship that for seventeen years jailed, tortured, and/or killed thousands of its perceived enemies. “We never put Pinochet on trial,” Chilean director Pablo Larraín tells Screen’s Jeremy Kay. “He died a millionaire and free and that lack of impunity made him eternal and has broken my country.”

Larraín has tackled the junta’s dark legacy in what some have referred to as his Pinochet trilogy: Tony Manero (2008), Post Mortem (2010), and No (2012). The dictator himself is never seen in these films, but with El Conde, which premiered in competition in Venice last week, Larraín puts him front and center. Jaime Vadell, now in his late eighties and one of the mainstays of Chilean telenovelas and cinema, plays Pinochet with what the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney calls “a commanding balance of cruelty, shameless self-justification, grizzled charm, and decrepit physicality.”

He also plays him as a 250-year-old caped vampire who feasts on smoothies made of blended human hearts. Lately, though, Larraín and Vadell’s Pinochet has been thinking of ending it all, and his wife (Gloria Münchmeyer) and their five grown children gather to quibble over what they imagine to be a bounteous inheritance. “Nothing about this frequently brilliant but wildly contorted film is easy,” writes Jessica Kiang in Variety, “neither working through the knotted narrative, nor trying to find a clear moral throughline amidst all the snide and scabrous nihilism.”

“Shot by Edward Lachman in ravishing, Andrei Rublev–esque black-and-white, El Conde surely deserves to be seen on a big screen,” writes Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri, and the film will indeed see a limited theatrical release on Friday before Netflix begins streaming it on September 15. El Conde builds toward what Ebiri describes as “practically a miasma of beheadings. The director doesn’t play coy with any of this stuff. He’s not afraid to find beauty and thrills in this monstrous story he’s concocted about the people who raped his country, because he knows that he has to seize our attention and keep it.”

Patricio Guzmán in New York

On Thursday, Patricio Guzmán, Dreaming of Utopia: 50 Years of Revolutionary Hope and Memory, copresented by Icarus Films and Cinema Tropical, opens with a screening at Anthology Film Archives of Salvador Allende (2004), a somewhat personal reflection from the renowned documentarian. The series kicks into high gear the following day with a weeklong run of a new restoration of Guzmán’s debut feature, The First Year (1972). Anthology programmers describe this chronicle of the early days of Allende’s Popular Unity government as the work of “a young man bursting with energy, creativity, and a passionate enthusiasm for the unprecedented political and social transformation taking place before his eyes: a constitutional, legal, and nonviolent Socialist revolution that would prove so threatening to the established power structure that it would soon resort to brute force to quash it.”

In 1975, 1977, and 1979, Guzmán completed the three parts of what many consider to be the definitive account on film of the coup and the series of events that led to it, The Battle of Chile. The Brooklyn Academy of Music will screen the new restoration for a full week starting Friday. “This was an era when politics were a total spectacle of manifestos, political parties, mass participation,” Guzmán tells Dan Schindel at Hyperallergic. Their conversation touches on the deaths of two crew members working on The Battle of Chile, the smuggling of footage to Cuba via Sweden, and the vital role that Chris Marker played in the film’s completion.

“There is a movement of university students who are creating wonderful things in Chile right now,” says Guzmán, but “it is still a country that has been severely hit.” On September 13 and 14, IFC Center will present four of Guzmán’s most recent films, all of them haunted by Chilean history: Nostalgia for the Light (2010), The Pearl Button (2015), The Cordillera of Dreams (2019), and My Imaginary Country (2022).

Raúl Ruiz in Vienna

The centerpiece of the Viennale’s preview of its 2023 edition running from October 19 through 31 is a pair of kindred series, Resistance, Memory, Reinvention: Fifty Years of Chilean Film and a Raúl Ruiz retrospective copresented with the Austrian Film Museum. Chilean filmmaker Dominga Sotomayor and Haden Guest, director of the Harvard Film Archive, have selected twenty-five films for the first series that “bear witness to the richness and diversity of Chilean filmmaking over the past decades.”

Ruiz and his lifelong collaborator and partner, filmmaker Valeria Sarmiento, were among the hundreds of thousands of Chileans who fled their country shortly after the coup. Ruiz had won the Golden Leopard in Locarno for his first feature, Three Sad Tigers (1968), and both he and Sarmiento had long and prolific careers in exile. One of the projects he had to abandon, though, was Socialist Realism (1973/2023), a satirical view of the clash between workers and intellectuals during the all-too-brief Allende administration. Now completed and restored by Sarmiento and producer Chamila Rodríguez, Socialist Realism will see its world premiere at the San Sebastián Film Festival (September 22 through 30) before it heads to Vienna.

Before the Coup

For more than five years, critic and filmmaker Jaime Grijalba has been freely offering daily translations of Ruiz’s diaries, and in this month’s Brooklyn Rail, he surveys Chilean cinema in the years leading up to the coup. One of the films he writes about is Eduardo Labarca’s Chile June 1973 (1973), a vibrant work of “fast cuts, moving camera shots, text on screen, and psychedelic music by Chilean musicians, as it moves between protests for and against Allende’s government.”

Chile June 1973 is an expression of glee over the quashing of a right-wing uprising just months before the tables were turned, and “seeing it now, it’s all bittersweet,” writes Grijalba. “It feels like a victory song seconds before the defeat, especially when we see the happy faces of the people in a march celebrating that the attempted coup failed. The national anthem sounds loud as the film fades out. Shivers. This newsreel was shown in cinemas in Chile in July, but was quickly put out of circulation by the military as they thought it would cloud the investigation of what had happened that day. Sometimes, the darkest jokes write themselves.”

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