Global Cinema 35: Chile – Beyond My Grandfather Allende (2015)

Chilean cinema has been through periods of strength over the years, and there have been some notable international talents that have flourished after early starts in Chile, like the prolific Raúl Ruiz and veteran documentarian Patricio Guzmán (who made the epic The Battle of Chile). Modern filmmaking has continued to flourish under a new vanguard of directors, both of features (like the excellent Too Late to Die Young by Dominga Sotomayor, or No by Pablo Larraín) and documentaries like the one covered below. This personal story should be viewed alongside a wider overview of the events of Allende’s overthrow (as in Guzmán’s epic three-part film mentioned above), but it gives a different perspective on such an important modern figure.


Flag - ChileRepublic of Chile (República de Chile)
population 17,574,000 | capital Santiago (5.4m) though the legislature is based in Valparaíso | largest cities Santiago, Valparaíso (804k), Concepción (666k), La Serena (296k), Antofagasta (285k) | area 756,096 km2 | religion Christianity (63%), none (36%) | official language Spanish (español chileno) | major ethnicity (estimates) white (64%), mestizos (35%), Amerindians (5%) | currency Chilean peso ($) [CLP] | internet .cl

The southernmost country in the world occupies a narrow stretch of land (64km at its narrowest) between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, covering a huge number variety of landscapes and climates, and controlling a number of island groups including Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and the Juan Fernández Islands. Its name is theorised to come variously from the name of a tribal chief via the Incas, or from an indigenous word meaning “ends of the earth” or the Mapuche for “where the land ends” or the Quechua for “cold”. There is evidence for some human presence in southern Chile 18,500 years ago, though more permanent settlements date back 10,000 years. The Incan empire briefly extended into the northern area of modern Chile, but the Mapuche in the south resisted successfully, ending with the Battle of the Maule in the late-15th century. Magellan was the first European to set foot in 1520, and more Spaniards (including Pizarro’s lieutenant Pedro de Valdivia, who founded Santiago) followed in the mid-16th century, annexing it for its fertile central valley. Mapuche insurrections (including one resulting in Valdivia’s death) persisted into the 17th century until the Spanish abolished slavery in 1683. Independence from Spain was proclaimed on 18 September 1810 (the date commemorated annually in its National Day); war followed, but a final victory over royalists thanks to Bernardo O’Higgins and José de San Martín came eight years later, though society remained largely unchanged. Territory expansion followed, entrenching landowner and rich financial interests, and it wasn’t until the 1920s that a reformist president was elected. Coups and instability followed for much of the rest of the century, most notably to depose Socialist Salvador Allende in 1973 with the help of the USA. The military leadership of Augusto Pinochet was not toppled until 1989 and democracy was restored, with an elected president having a term of four years.

The earliest film screening in Chile took place in 1902 and the first feature was made in 1910, though the industry struggled for much of the 20th century. A “New Chilean Cinema” developed in the late-60s under directors like Raúl Ruiz and Miguel Littín, but a slump took place during the Pinochet years. New directors like Pablo Larraín and Sebastián Lelio have emerged in recent years.


Allende, mi abuelo Allende (Beyond My Grandfather Allende, 2015)

This is a somewhat different proposition from most documentary films made by someone about their own family. It’s not that the family story is lacking in incident or drama: the filmmaker’s grandfather Salvador was the socialist president of Chile, deposed by military coup in 1973 and who committed suicide rather than be taken, and his family was an illustrious one which continues to be filled with politicians and nationally influential people. Rather, what marks it out is the way that nobody the filmmaker talks to, not her mother Isabel, nor aunt Carmen, nor grandmother (Salvador’s wife, “Tencha”, who died while the film was being made), nor even her cousins will open up about Salvador, called by his nickname “Chicho” throughout the film. Perhaps it’s his suicide (which turns out to have been how her other aunt and another family member departed), or the enormous emotional trauma his downfall had on all of them, but to have this emptiness at the heart of a story can be a difficult one to overcome, for the audience. I think the filmmaker Marcia handles it well, though, and from the documentary and filmic evidence, you get a little hint of how Chicho was in life (the film is less concerned with his political legacy), but throughout all of it there’s this sense of a story only half-told.

Allende, mi abuelo Allende (Beyond My Grandfather Allende, 2015)CREDITS
Director Marcia Tambutti Allende; Writers Allende, Paola Castillo, Bruni Burres and Valeria Vargas; Cinematographer David Bravo and Eduardo Cruz-Coke; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Saturday 19 May 2018.

Nona. Si me mojan, yo los quemo (Nona. If They Soak Me, I’ll Burn Them, 2019)

Okay it’s time to take a break from an almost constant two weeks of Japanese films on my blog, and to switch it up I’m going to do a week focusing on new films directed by women which have premiered online since the lockdown started. I’m going to begin with this one because it’s probably the most experimental in form, and also it’s just left Mubi after being up a month. I’ll get to ones which are currently available soon though. It reminds me a little of Lina Rodgriguez‘s work, but with a somewhat more tricky narrative structure that can make things rather opaque.


This is, to say the least, an oblique film. It’s about the elderly woman of the title (Josefina Ramírez), who bookends the film seen throwing a molotov cocktail of her own creation. The rest of the film seamlessly blends staged fiction with documentary aesthetics to the extent that I’m not exactly clear where each starts and the other ends. We see her in cars riding her around her assumed neighbourhood, with vague references to a previous domicile and a history that has brought her out to the seaside. I’m not exactly clear what the story is, but this is experimental filmmaking which trades in elemental motifs (fire, water, revolution). I wanted to like it a lot more than I did, but I feel like maybe the filmmaker is trying out narrative techniques to hone her craft.

Nona. If They Soak Me, I’ll Burn Them film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Camila José Donoso; Cinematographer Matías Illanes; Starring Josefina Ramírez, Gigi Reyes; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 23 April 2020.

La telenovela errante (The Wandering Soap Opera, 2017)

Amongst the restorations and retrospectives, Mubi also presents new or rediscovered films by contemporary directors, both brand new names I’ve never heard of before (like Lina Rodriguez) — and this despite my regular attendance at film festivals! — or old names who have new works that perhaps have slipped by other means of distribution (such as new films by Krzysztof Zanussi for example, or the later works of Straub/Huillet). One such is this Chilean film by expatriate filmmaker and prolific auteur Raúl Ruiz; it was filmed in 1990 but edited together after Ruiz’s death (in 2011) by his partner.


A typically goofy project from the prolific expatriate Chilean director, returning to his home country to make this 1990 project with students, only now edited and released by his former partner. It has an episodic structure with title cards and only a loose sense of connectivity between the episodes, but it has Ruiz’s style, or rather his restless reinventions, as the action is framed differently, whether through TV screens and reflections, or shot from behind indoor plants, and other ways of retaining viewer attention. There’s a constant sense of play around spectatorship that you might expect, and it comes across as a metatextual reconfiguration of telenovelas with lots of references to contemporary Chile, which naturally pass me by but raise a wry smile at times. It has an energy and humour to it that is very likeable, even as (like many Ruiz films) it contains some kind of enigmatic mystery at its heart.

The Wandering Soap Opera film posterCREDITS
Directors Raúl Ruiz and Valeria Sarmiento; Writers Ruiz and Pia Rey; Cinematographers Leo Kocking, Héctor Ríos and Rodrigo Avilés; Starring Luis Alarcón, Patricia Rivadeneira, Francisco Reyes; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 2 January 2020.

Tarde para morir joven (Too Late to Die Young, 2018)

I have been doing a week of South American cinema building up to the release in UK cinemas today of the Argentinian epic La flor (2018), so I am finishing the week off with a review of a recent Chilean film (albeit with financing from around the continent, including Argentina). I saw this film at last year’s London Film Festival, and it featured high in my favourite films of 2018. It was given a UK cinematic release in 2019 and I got to see it again, and still very much liked it.


There’s a sense in which this film reminded me of the previous year’s Estiu 1993 (Summer 1993, 2017), being a Spanish language film about young women set in the 1990s in a verdant forest setting at the edge of civilisation, but beyond that I should probably accept they are doing quite different things. For a start, the protagonists of this film are largely older (there’s one young girl, Clara, who I interpreted as the director’s surrogate) but this mostly focuses on Sofia (Demian Hernández) and her relationship with various boys (and her dad) in the small commune they live in just outside Santiago. It never feels so much driven by a plot as by a need to represent all the different people within the community, and with great economy show how they feel about one another, and it’s Sofia and Lucas (Antar Machado) who become the film’s focus — though never to the exclusion of others.

That may all make it less immediately accessible than Summer 1993, but it’s somehow even more beautiful and poetic in the way that it conjures an era, never heavy-handed in the way it layers on these meanings — there aren’t even any on-screen titles suggesting when it’s set, given away just by the absence of electronics, the older models of car, some of the clothes (though the fashion wasn’t emphasised), the toys, and the music choices (a piece of music by Mazzy Star — in a particularly beautifully-shot scene in a bathtub — suddenly took me back 25 years, and I suppose that was precisely the point). It’s about a time in history when Chile was emerging from a period of dictatorship, but it’s also about the director’s childhood, and it’s about growing through that turbulence and into yourself as a person. Also, there’s also rarely a scene without a dog in it, who become almost as important to the community as some of the adults (at least to the kids, who have pretty conflicted feelings about their parents).

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Dominga Sotomayor; Cinematographer Inti Briones; Starring Demian Hernández, Antar Machado; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Sunday 14 October 2018 (and most recently at ICA, London, Saturday 1 June 2019).

La batalla de Chile: La lucha de un pueblo sin armas (The Battle of Chile, 1975/1976/1979)

The “Third Cinema” movement may have kicked off with Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s The Hour of the Furnaces (1968), but in a decade of revolutions few made as many waves throughout the continent and internationally as the one that deposed Socialist leader Salvador Allende on 11 September 1973. This period is covered in detail by Patricio Guzmán in a series of films made in the late-1970s, and followed up decades later with the reflective Chile, la memoria obstinada (Chile, Obstinate Memory, 1997).


Primera parte: La insurrección de la burguesía (Part I: The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie, 1975)

This first part of Guzmán’s trilogy about the downfall of Salvador Allende is urgent political filmmaking that still feels relevant today. To a large extent, it is a careful laying out of events early in 1973 around a plebiscite and subsequent tactics by the opposition to Allende to unseat him from government and derail his policies, so in a sense it does feel like a lot of footage of protests and vox pops with people out on the streets. However, the footage has clarity and seems carefully structured and researched, and images of middle-class Chileans screaming out for impeachment of the left-wing Allende does seem to resonate through time. It also builds to a real coup de cinéma, which is chilling at the same time as setting up the imminent events for the coup against Allende. If anything, I’d have liked a bit more discussion of what exactly Allende’s policies were and where his unpopularity was rooted, but it is filmmaking with passion and purpose.

Segunda parte: El golpe de estado (Part II: The Coup d’État, 1976)

This second part moves from the abortive coup attempt in late-June 1973 through to the events of 11 September 1973, when Pinochet was installed in power to turn back the Marxist policies of Salvador Allende. Again, Guzmán goes into great detail about the way events evolved, from the transport strikes and street protests in favour of Allende, through to the fragile political situation involving the Christian Democrats (and the Catholic Church), the hints of a coup being organised by the military forces in Valparaíso (and the assassination of a high-ranking officer loyal to Allende in order to prevent word getting to him). Throughout the film are these teachable moments about how fascist, anti-revolutionary forces organise and destabilise a country, before pledging to restore the stability they themselves undermined (in collusion with business, media and powerful political interests) in a show of military force. The end of the film still shows that the angry determination of the workers was an obstacle yet to be dealt with by Pinochet and the coup leaders, which takes us into part III of the documentary.

Tercera parte: El poder popular (Part III: Popular Power, 1979)

The third part steps back from the messy end of Part II (September 1973) and turns its focus instead to the people, the workers and their bosses, those who were wanting the government to deliver on their promises and were trying to lead the attempts to make Chile a better place for the workers. It shows their struggles and difficulties, the ways in which strikes and bourgeois actions prevented certain elements of the grand plans to nationalise industries, and the way in which government support didn’t always deliver on its promises. It’s a little more diffuse than the previous parts in lacking its focus on Allende himself and the attempts to topple him, but it provides an interesting epilogue to the work of revolutionary activity at all levels of society.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Patricio Guzmán; Cinematographer Jorge Müller Silva; Length 263 minutes (Part I: 97 minutes; Part II: 78 minutes; Part III: 88 minutes).
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 2 July/Wednesday 4 July/Thursday 12 July 2018.

The 33 (aka Los 33, 2015)

It feels like there are two distinct films within this relatively big-budget Chilean/Colombian co-production, based on the real-life mining disaster at Copiapó in 2010 in which 33 miners were trapped underground. One is a film of excellent cinematography in underground chambers, of fine acting by the ensemble cast, depicting the lives of ordinary people in an extraordinary situation. It does a really good job, in particular, of capturing these men’s weary lined faces as they assess their chances, and of their families above ground (mostly wives and children) hoping and praying for their survival. That’s a good film.

And then there’s the film as it’s scripted, replete with disaster clichés, spoken in heavily-accented English, and — perhaps suggesting some of the commercial focus of the filmmakers — even setting up a triumphal US involvement towards the end (though thankfully backing off from giving too great a value to that). This is the film in which the engineer played by Gabriel Byrne (of all people; mostly the cast are Latino) points at a 3D rendering of the mine overlaid with a graphic of the Empire State Building (two of them in fact) to represent the size of the obstacle. This film is not nearly as successful. People shake their heads (Byrne again) and say “we need to face the TRUTH dammit” while others (the Minister of Mining, played by Rodrigo Santoro) say “No I believe en mi corazón that they’re still alive, and now let me go listen to a touching old woman’s song” (yes, I’m paraphrasing obviously, but not much).

On balance, I think the good film wins out in the end, but only just. It’s beautifully filmed, and the tension is solidly crafted — it would be all but unbearable if we didn’t know the real-life outcome. Perhaps on reflection, it’s the cast speaking in English I object to the most, but there’s still plenty to like, and Banderas is a dependable linchpin for the unfolding drama.

The 33 (aka Los 33, 2015)CREDITS
Director Patricia Riggen; Writers Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten and Michael Thomas (based on the book Deep Down Dark by Héctor Tobar); Cinematographer Checco Varese; Starring Antonio Banderas, Lou Diamond Phillips, Rodrigo Santoro, Juliette Binoche, Gabriel Byrne; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Tuesday 2 February 2016.

No (2012)

Films About FilmmakingThere are many types of filmmaking, and television advertising is one more. This is a film that finds common ground between filmmaking and political change, via the medium of television and the language of advertising.


As a story from his own country’s recent history, ostensibly this film by Chilean director Pablo Larraín is about the democratic overthrow of dictator General Augusto Pinochet in 1988, following 15 years of his rule, since he seized power from the left-wing Salvador Allende in a coup aided by the United States. However, it’s not really straight history, and it deftly manages to wrap in a commentary on the importance of television and the power of advertising, not to mention being a human drama about one man in the centre of this movement for change.

The protagonist of the drama is René, a creative at an advertising company, played by the ever-reliable Gael García Bernal. He’s no hero though, no crusading campaigner against dictatorship, bent on exposing the unjustness and brutality of the regime he’s working against. He’s just a man who knows how to sell stuff to people, and so the anti-Pinochet campaign is just another portfolio, albeit one that his conservative boss tries to dissuade him from pursuing. What he sees in it may ultimately be a hope for a better country, but at first it just seems to be a challenge to his training. Watching one of the ads that the politically conscious action group have created, he is aghast at how bitter and negative it is, and so he goes about fashioning something a little more ‘saleable’ — which, of course, resembles nothing so much as a Coke ad, a bit of lifestyle product placement with a voting agenda (vote “no” to Pinochet’s continued rule).

The film that Larraín has put together takes the historical situation as a backdrop. The film is primarily about the ironic disjunction between the political aims and the methods used. Towards the end, René returns to the usual fare, a ridiculous set-up with a helicopter full of plastic low-grade local celebrities, and nothing seems different. The film seems profoundly ambivalent at a certain level about what exactly has been achieved (not that it’s in any way supportive of Pinochet or his regime, for which little love is evident). It’s just that for advertisers and people in the media, it’s global capital that dictates their jobs and the way they work, not local politics.

Working alongside the script, the film’s style is a key to its success, as it mimics the film format of the era. Partly this is done so as to integrate the original television adverts seamlessly into the drama, but it also puts everything at just that slight remove, with the grainy fuzzy film making it seem like something quaintly out of time (in a similar way to, say, Andrew Bujalski’s recent Computer Chess).

It’s an interesting story of a country and an era that doesn’t get much airplay outside the region. It’s also a fascinating take on an advertisers’ dream of the 1980s, and about the way that advertising and politics don’t exactly make for easy bedfellows. Most of all, though, it’s a human drama about one man dealing with an industry (not to mention a country) founded on corruption, and where exactly that can lead.

No film posterCREDITS
Director Pablo Larraín; Writer Pedro Peirano (based on the play El plebiscito by Antonio Skármeta); Cinematographer Sergio Armstrong; Starring Gael García Bernal; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 24 January 2014.