Chilean political thriller 1976 screening at the BFI London Film Festival is an unbearably tense and involving debut from actor turned director Manuela Martelli, starring award-winning Aline Kuppenheim.
Appearance and Disappearanceby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Carmen (an impressively moving Aline Kuppenheim) is a woman whose only care in the world when we first see her seems to be choosing a tricky colour scheme for the seaside holiday home she is redecorating. While she is in the paint shop, through the shop window we see someone bundled into a van in the street: pink paint drips like blood on Carmen’s navy shoes. As Carmen returns to her car, she sees a single lost shoe in the road. It’s the last sign of life for someone who has now been “disappeared”. This imagery is typical of Martelli’s flawless visual evocation of the film’s setting and the overriding sense of casual dread that pervaded Pinochet’s oppressive Chile in 1976, three years after the military coup that brought him to power. Chile was a country in turmoil, where daily life could be an unsafe nightmare.
At first Carmen appears to be just a conventional well-off wife, in elegant cashmere and pearls. But the film reveals the more complex person beneath. When the local priest (Hugo Medina) unexpectedly asks her to help a young man with a gunshot wound that he is secretly sheltering, to our surprise she accepts. It turns out she is a woman who donates clothes to the church and reads to blind people. She finds it difficult to sleep at night and is clearly not without conscience or compassion. She had wanted to be a doctor, but such a thing was not possible for a woman, so she trained as a Red Cross nurse.
Carmen quickly realises that Elias (Nicolás Sepúlveda) is not a young priest as she was told, but an injured anti-Pinochet freedom fighter. She is drawn into helping him, lying to get him antibiotics, liaising for him with his comrades living in the slums, several bus journeys away. She becomes increasingly paranoid as she suspects she is being watched. The risks she knows she is taking make everything seem sinister. But maybe she really is being watched and has put herself in danger? She cannot help feeling obscurely threatened as the atmosphere of tension and fear builds. We also gradually learn more about her family life and her husband (Alejandro Goic), a doctor, so we fill in the background to her life.
1976 is beautifully shot and edited, and performed with steely understatement by a gifted cast. Mariá Portugal’s deliciously dark electronic score underlines the mounting dread in Carmen’s mind. Aline Küppenheim creates a bourgeois housewife suddenly confronted with the horrors of the regime (never seen but always present) that her social circle, either tacitly or openly, supports. The film was made by a female crew and what stands out is the female point of view in Carmen’s story, the difficulty for women in Carmen’s position to make their voice heard, thus providing a reason for her silent, apprehensive resistance. “Carmen becomes aware of herself through her troubles… and will finally feel alive,” said Martelli (known for her role in Andrés Wood’s Machuca).
1976 premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival, screened at the BFI London Film Festival on 7 and 9 October 2022, where it won Best Debut. It has won numerous other awards.