London 2023 review: Penal Cordillera (Felipe Carmona)

“Despite these shortcomings though, the film is an interesting attempt to analyse the minds of the henchmen of a brutal dictatorship.”

A luxury compound in the foothills of the Andes. To call it a prison would be laughable. Five inmates, all high-ranking officers in General Augusto Pinochet’s military junta that terrorized Chile in the 1970s and ’80s, spend their last days in these serene surroundings with everything their hearts desire just a snap of the fingers away. The young men supposed to be guarding them are treated like servants, and they can lose themselves in their hobbies as much as they like. But when one of them gives a rare television interview, his haughty and dismissive tone when speaking about the crimes they committed causes a furore in the public. The Chilean government feels forced to do something, and slowly but surely privileges are taken away. When there is talk about moving them from their cosy little mountain spot, arrogance and blood lust rear their ugly heads and the old men start fighting back.

Playing in the BFI First Feature Competition, Felipe Carmona’s Penal Cordillera is the latest entry in South America’s reckoning with its violent past. Like his compatriot Pablo Larraín earlier this year, Carmona focuses on the aftermath of the Pinochet regime, the reverberations of which can still be felt in Chilean society. But whereas Larraín in his El Conde chose neo-gothic comedy as his canvas to paint on, Carmona seems less assured of the genre in which to anchor his story about an old guard still holding the younger generations in its grip. An undertone of satire is mixed with thriller elements and political drama in a screenplay that is uneven yet entertaining, with many a strand leading into the desolate darkness of the surrounding hills.

At its core the premise of five old men who used to rule the country with an iron fist now relegated to being upset that their favourite magazines aren’t being delivered anymore would have lent itself to broader comedy, except that their sinister past is too recent and too based in reality not to have felt irreverent (an idea that didn’t bother Larraín). Carmona clearly doesn’t want to milk the story for its comedy, the inherent absurdity of the situation remaining as the sole cause for a chuckle, but the thriller elements he introduces do not work in the film’s favour. Increasing levels of violence inflicted by both camps, the old junta men on one side and the guards on the other, are driven by Mariá Portugal’s intense and electronics-heavy score (easily one of the film’s strongest aspects), but leaving its mysteries unresolved creates an unsatisfactory feeling. Part of the problem is rooted in the characters being largely undefined, to the point where some of the inmates, let alone the guards, are hard to distinguish from each other. The sole exception is private Navarrete, a meek and gentle young man who is wrapped around the inmates’ fingers. He gets a gay subplot of his own, but this unfortunately, like most plot strands, is not wrapped up.

Against all odds Penal Cordillera still works on a scene-by-scene basis, even if spliced together it is a tonal hodgepodge. Suspenseful scenes are very suspenseful, comedic scenes are oddly, if not laugh-out-loud, funny. The actors leave a strong impression even if most of their characters don’t. The technical work beyond the already-mentioned score is strong, from production design to cinematography, even if the latter is of the ilk that Netflix or HBO use to signal “This is prestige television.” Penal Cordillera is clearly the film of a director still trying to find his footing, not helped by his own screenplay which is erratically paced and doesn’t know exactly how to tell its story. Despite these shortcomings though, the film is an interesting attempt to analyse the minds of the henchmen of a brutal dictatorship. Throughout the film they play a game of memory, in which one of them tries to recall Chilean medal winners of major sports events. When at the end this game suddenly changes to remembering those who they killed and in what gruesome manner, the banality of the discussion hits home. Had Penal Cordillera contained more of these ideas it could have been a fantastic film, but instead it stands as the flawed debut of a director still lacking a voice.