Chilean Film and the Enigma of Power
by John Bergstrom
While the day September 11th is significant to many U.S. citizens, it also holds significance for many people in the country of Chile. On that day in 1973, the democratically elected socialist president, Salvador Allende, was overthrown in a military coup and replaced by General Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet then led a dictatorship in Chile for nearly two decades and during his reign, thousands of leftists were interned, tortured, and executed. Due to the violence of the Pinochet regime, many Chilean filmmakers fled the country and created productions from abroad, as many held left-wing views. Thus, the film industry within Chile was severely weakened and during the dictatorship years, the remnants of the film industry were creatively constrained and could not make films that negatively portrayed the regime or centered around marginalized groups such as the LGBTQ+ community.
Since the end of the regime however, the film industry within Chile has begun to grow again. Besides witnessing a higher volume of filmmakers and productions, the subject of focus has been opened for artists. Mainly, the constraints that once plagued filmmakers have been alleviated and stories that portray the Pinochet dictatorship negatively, along with ones about marginalized groups, can now be made and released to the Chilean people. Prominent examples of Chile’s cinematic liberation include 2004’s Machuca and 2012’s No, which both depict negative aspects of Pinochet’s regime, with the latter becoming the first Chilean film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. In terms of a social progression, the 2017 film, A Fantastic Woman, revolving around a transgender woman and the discrimination she experiences, received critical acclaim and became the first Chilean film to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Each of these mentioned films are important components of Chile’s cinematic development because they serve as creative works which could not have been made in Pinochet’s Chile and were perhaps created in defiance of the nation’s totalitarian and discriminatory past. However, Chile’s progression in cinema is not constrained to the already observed films, as a distinct motion picture deals with Chile’s past in creatively unique and profound manners.
In the 2016 film, Neruda, famous Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda is hunted by the Chilean government due to his status as a prominent communist. Rather than focusing on the Pinochet era itself, Neruda uses a past setting of the late 1940’s, a time when communists were persecuted in Chile, to not only allude to Pinochet’s eventual rise but to also show that oppression is not a one-time stigma and can emerge on various occasions. Assigned to hunt Neruda, determined inspector Óscar Peluchonneau gradually learns about the man he is searching for and a game of cat and mouse ensues between the fugitive and pursuer. During the inspector’s pursuit of Neruda, a stark contrast is shown between the film’s depiction of government and citizens. Throughout the film, government is often shown to be oppressive, as seen with a soldier’s conduct in the video essay, while the acts of individuals are ones that express love towards fellow people, not just because they may be Chilean but because they are human beings who deserve affection and respect. This divide between how government treatment and personal kinship are portrayed, visually translates the enigma of power in Chile and how the country has been affected by fascism.
Another aspect of the film and its portrayal of power is the line between reality and fiction. As the search for Neruda is conducted, Peluchonneau has his status and sense of reality questioned. Upon talking with Neruda’s wife, the inspector is blatantly told that he is a mere secondary character in the overall story of Pablo Neruda. Similar to the inspector’s perceived secondary status compared to Neruda, governments in Chilean history, while prominent, hold secondary status in relation to the Chilean people who are grounded in reality and compose Chile’s true narrative. Ultimately, the inspector dies and Neruda escapes persecution from Chile, reminiscent of the filmmaker exodus after Pinochet’s rise to power. Unlike governments that come and go, people remain and live on through a shared history, eventually overcoming the struggles of oppression. Neruda’s portrayal of power speaks to the broader sense of world cinema in how a nation’s past can affect creative expressions through film in the present. As Chilean film has evolved since experiencing decades of tyranny, film is now able to better depict the spirit of the Chilean people, one that is enduring and ever-lasting.
Translations in video essay were received from the English script of Neruda (2016) found on SpringfieldSpringfield.co.uk.
- Diestro-Dópido , Mar. “Children of the Coup: Chilean Cinema after Pinochet.” Sight & Sound. British Film Institute, 27 June 2017.
- Escobar, Valeria de los Ríos. “Contemporary Chilean Cinema: a Provisional Cartography of an Expanding Field.” Senses of Cinema, 1 Dec. 2018.
- Pinto Veas, Ivan. “A Brief Chronicle of Chilean Cinema (English Version).” ReVista, 2009. Harvard University.