Reviewer: Freda Cooper
Director: Florian Gallenberger
Stars: Emma Watson, Daniel Bruhl, Michael Nyqvist
Released 1st July 2016
Films about the 1973 Chilean coup and the Pinochet regime are few and far between. The best known, Costa-Gavras’ “Missing”, was made in 1982 when General Pinochet’s dictatorship had another nine years to go. It’s still a little known corner of modern history, one that “The Colony” attempts to bring into the light. With limited success.
Just days after her arrival in Santiago, air hostess Emma Watson and photographer boyfriend Daniel Bruhl are caught up in the overthrow of President Allende. The streets are swarming with soldiers and the couple are rounded up along with thousands of others. He’s an obvious target because of his involvement with a radical group and he’s soon whisked away. Once released, Watson establishes he’s been taken to a religious community, the Colonia Dignidad. So she sets off to find him, despite warnings that anybody who goes in there never comes out.
Based on harrowing true events, you could be forgiven for expecting a film with gravitas and a strong emotional pull. But the reality is more simplistic and, at times, perilously close to superficial. There’s no doubting that director Florian Gallenberger is sincere in his efforts to shed some light on this dark period in Chile’s history, and that of the world, but there are too many irritants and inconsistencies for it to be taken wholly seriously. Too much emphasis is placed on the Bruhl/Watson love story, and it’s painted in rosy colours, so the narrative goes soft. And when Watson arrives at the Colonia, she’s dressed extremely modestly – apart from her high heels. Yet they’re not noticed until she’s become a member there and it doesn’t dawn on anybody that the person she claims to be wouldn’t wear them.
Equally simplistic is the message that the Colonia represents Chile. There’s the underground torture rooms, the experiments on members of the cult and when the President himself pays a visit, he sees an idealised community with people in their Sunday best, reminiscent of the Nazi’s showcase concentration camps. The cult’s leader, the slimy Pious (Michael Nyqvist), rules with a rod of iron, doling out brutal punishments and submitting everybody to his law. As a metaphor, it’s hardly rocket science.
That’s not to say that the film is all bad. It does the thriller side of things quite well, gradually building the suspense in the first half and then charging towards the climax. Bruhl and Watson hatch an escape plan and every time it looks like they’ve reached safety, or they’re dealing with somebody they can trust, another obstacle is put in their way and their freedom is threatened all over again. Again, it’s simplistic, but this time it’s reasonably effective and, although the characters are sketchily drawn, you’re involved enough with them to want them to escape.
Only five people ever escaped from the real Colonia Dignidad and there was an international outcry when the truth about the place was revealed. Depressingly, nothing changed in Chile. The film itself is something of an eye-opener but it tells its chilling story in a strangely dispassionate way. There’s no sense of anger or indignation in the movie. Or among the audience.