“Carmen’s story is thus a truly female story, told by Martelli and other women with an understanding of its emotions that a male director could never achieve.”
South and Central America’s violent history in the 20th century is often told on film through the perspective of men, not in the least because the violence was inflicted by men. The stories are also mostly told by men. Actress Manuela Martelli, in her directorial debut, chooses to view her own country Chile’s sinister past through the eyes of a woman, a small story under the oppressive regime of General Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s. Probably best known for her role in Andrés Wood’s title Machuca, which incidentally is set against a similar background, Martelli reunites with one of her co-stars in the 2004 Directors’ Fortnight entry, Aline Küppenheim, to create a portrait of a bourgeois housewife suddenly confronted with the horrors of the regime that her social circle, either tacitly or openly, supports.
In the winter of 1976, three years after the military coup that brought Pinochet to power, Carmen (Küppenheim) travels to her family’s beach house to oversee its renovation and to prepare for an upcoming family gathering. Father Sánchez (Hugo Medina), a local priest and friend of the family, asks Carmen to take care of a young man he has in hiding. This man, Elías (Nicolás Sepúlveda), turns out to be a revolutionary who has been shot in the leg. Carmen, the wife of a Santiago surgeon, uses her contacts to get medical supplies under false pretenses, and gradually lets herself become more involved. But more involvement means more danger, and more paranoia.
1976‘s approach, letting its part-willfully, part-necessarily oblivious protagonist experience the terror inflicted upon others to uphold the bourgeoisie she represents, is well executed by a team behind the camera (exclusively made up of women) that creates an atmosphere of fear and suspicion and the possibility of a fatal error lurking just around the corner. In particular Mariá Portugal’s anachronistic but deliciously dark electronic score underlines the mounting dread in Carmen’s mind, but all elements combine, from Yarará Rodríguez’s cinematography to Jesica Suárez’s sound design. Martelli smartly decides never to give the antagonist (in the form of the military junta itself) a face, or at least leave it ambiguous so as to heighten Carmen’s paranoia. The reasons why Carmen helps Elías are less clear: is it pure altruism, is it guilt, or is there an element of agreement with his cause? “I hope you win,” she tells him at some point, and a history as a former Red Cross nurse might explain her inclination to aid a person in need of medical help, but this part of Carmen’s story is too opaque to illuminate any deeper idea that might be hiding underneath the narrative. A sailing trip with her husband and a befriended couple leaves her sick, but is it the boat’s movements or the way the other woman speaks in no uncertain terms about what should happen to revolutionaries?
That leaves us with a rather small but excellently told and acted political thriller. Küppenheim’s performance in the central role is a perfect mixture of confidence and unease, and the way she conveys Carmen’s realization of the consequences of her actions and how they differ for her when compared to others, and also why they differ, in the film’s final shot is pretty much perfection. Perhaps that encapsulation of its essence in a single moment is the film’s greatest triumph, and Küppenheim and Martelli nail it. But Carmen as a character is too enigmatic, too ideologically undefined to fully track what led to that moment. That makes 1976 a solid effort in terms of marrying form and feeling, but a little more deepening of its protagonist’s motives could have lifted this to excellence.
To bring it full circle though, the thing that makes 1976 stand out most from other films in its vein is the female aspect. One might even say this is in part where the ambiguity of the character stems from. In a patriarchal society like Chile in the 1970s (or even today), there is already a power imbalance between men and women even if both are part of the higher echelons of society. As such, women are automatically at least to some extent silenced. Certainly, given the more traditional role of nurturing mother and caretaker, the film elucidates the difficulty for women in Carmen’s position to make their voice heard, thus providing a reason for her silent, apprehensive resistance. Carmen is in the unenviable position of being torn between several instincts, and that is a position almost exclusively endured by women. Carmen’s story is thus a truly female story, told by Martelli and other women with an understanding of its emotions that a male director could never achieve.