Fascist! It’s today’s insult of choice for those seeking to shut down debate. It’s a cheap shot, deployed by people with weak or non-existent arguments, made all the cheaper by the troubling fact that real fascists, or those inspired by them, are walking tall again.
A great many people would, I feel, benefit from being forced to sit down and watch 1976a Chilean film which is screening at the London Film Festival next week.
The film’s festival screenings are, anyway, sell-outs. Deservedly so. But it will be available to rent via the BFI Player between 14 October and 23 October.
It offers a deeply unsettling picture of life under the totalitarian regime of General Augusto Pinochet, who seized power from the democratically elected left-wing government of Salvador Allende in a US-backed coup in 1973.
Its title comes from one of the murderous dictatorship’s darkest years, in which director Manuela Martelli’s maternal grandmother committed suicide.
Whether Pinochet was actually a fascist is often debated. Some would call him an autocratic nationalist, some an authoritarian kleptocrat. The late tyrant fraudulently amassed a sizeable fortune while in office. Don’t they all?
But even if Pinochet doesn’t strictly fit the academic definition, he played the same games in the same ballpark. He would have happily palled around with those who embraced the term. He was also, shamefully, one of Margaret Thatcher’s BFFs.
The film focuses on Carmen, a middle-aged woman from a privileged, conservative family. Brilliantly portrayed by Aline Küppenheim, she is the wife of a senior doctor and hospital administrator.
We first see her in a shop, having paint mixed for the renovation of the family’s beachside holiday home. She gives instructions, seeming to be the sort of person who is used to having commands obeyed, and needs taken care of, until the calm of the scene is shattered by an altercation outside. Shouts, screams, the sounds of police and of people running from them. A shocked Carmen goes outside, finding only a woman’s shoe remaining.
Just like in this scene, the film is always hinting it is about to bludgeon us with terror, but wisely, it doesn’t do that.
Carmen goes off to her beach house. Her family moves in and out. The naturalistic scenes are reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s Romeexcept they are filmed from the perspective of the lady of the house rather than a domestic servant.
Political instability seeps into that film too. But it is more prevalent in 1976. In the car, the message on the radio is “stay out of politics” – but it keeps intruding. A movie the children are watching is interrupted by one of Pinochet’s speeches. It is on every TV channel.
A trip to the beach is spoiled by a body washing up on it. We wonder how it got there. Newspaper headlines suggest that this was no ordinary murder.
Then Carmen, who has worked with the Red Cross only to have ambitions to be a doctor frustrated by a traditionalist father, is asked to help treat a young man by the family priest. He says the young man, Elias, is a thief, facing an unconscionably long sentence for a petty crime. It soon becomes clear that he is something very different: a dissident, part of the opposition to the regime.
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The film’s second act is exquisitely tense as she is drawn into helping him find more permanent refuge. Carmen is being watched. Her phone calls may be being bugged. But who are the watchers? Is it the car that follows her on the road? The creepy, overly familiar man in the cafe where she stops?
A comfortable, assured world turns into a paranoid nightmare. I’ve seen many quality horror movies with less tension and yes, less fear.
It might be a historical film but 1976 feels all too relevant today, particularly from the perspective of events in Russia, but also (ironically) in the US, which itself became the subject of a haphazard coup attempt in the form of the 6 January insurrection.
We often hear people talking about the “failure of democracy”. 1976 shows what you get if that is allowed to happen. It serves as a warning.
This is not an easy film, and those with subtitles rarely get a wide release. But it deserves one. There are, as I said, an awful lot of people who would benefit from watching it and thinking about the frightening world it depicts.