Review | ‘Chile ’76’: From portrait of privilege to taut political thriller

(3 stars)

A recurring motif swirls through “Chile ’76,” a modest but absorbing debut by Manuela Martelli. The opening scene sets the stage: A prosperous homemaker named Carmen (Aline Küppenheim) is choosing the right shade of pink for the seaside home she’s renovating; while the contractor pours a bit more red into the blue, outside the shop an activist is being arrested, another victim of the repressive regime of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

As the title suggests, the film takes place near the beginning of Pinochet’s violent rule; the signs of the coming terror are still subtle enough for women like Carmen to ignore them, even while she volunteers with a local church to donate clothing and read to the blind. When her priest asks her to do more — to care for a young man who has been shot in the leg — Carmen is forced to test the limits, less of her spiritual commitment than of her own carefully constructed carapace of denial.

Paint isn’t the only thing that swirls into liquid eddies in “Chile ’76”; so does blood. But Martelli, who based Carmen in part on her own grandmother, isn’t interested in shock value as much as how the personal and political mesh together, with increasingly tense results. What begins as a vivid portrait of well-heeled privilege — and, just maybe, consciousness-raising — becomes, almost imperceptibly, a tightly coiled psychological drama, as Carmen draws ever closer to taking a stand with real stakes.

Atmospheric, richly detailed and grounded in Martelli’s lived experience, “Chile ’76” has the ring of authenticity. It’s also a splendid showcase for Küppenheim, whose performance is all the more dazzling for being so interior and expertly restrained. Self-medicating on caffeine, nicotine and pills, her Carmen is an avatar for a time, not just when Right was oppressing Left, but when sexism was drowning women, even as it was just the water they swam in every day. With Mariá Portugal’s dissonant musical score magnifying the story’s growing sense of unease, “Chile ’76” becomes a film much larger — and more emotionally powerful — than the sum of its relatively understated parts. It more than earns its climax, which lands with a dreadful, devastating wallop. “Chile ’76” turns out to be a paranoid thriller altogether worthy of the era it captures with such cool, self-contained style.

Unrated. At the AFI Silver. Contains smoking. In Spanish with subtitles. 95 minutes.

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