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PosterThe Pinochet Case

(France/Chile/Belgium/Spain, 2001, 110 minutes, color, 35mm)

Directed by Patrico Guzmán

In English and Spanish


Who will speak for the disappeared?

Who has the moral right, the experience, and the articulateness required to express outrage and the sorrow over a bloody past, the mysterious deaths of thousands and the torture and imprisonment of thousands more? Who may speak also of the social rot endured by Chile under the regime of Augusto Pinochet, who toppled and murdered the democratically elected Salvador Allende in 1973? Who may speak of the diplomatic chicanery waged by the United States government in behalf of its Cold War "friend", Pinochet? And finally, who may speak also of a tough and unsentimental hope for a decent future for Chile?

Few in Chilean life have better credentials to speak for a wounded nation than documentarist Patricio Guzmán. Born in 1941, Guzmán came of political age in the 1960's and early 1970's, when economic and political reform was in the air in Santiago and throughout Chile. Caught up in the idealism of the Allende years, Guzmán's first film was called simply The First Year, and it chronicled Allende's tumultuous first 12 months in office. He would serve as an unofficial recorder of the Allende years, producing the epic Battle of Chile, about would be the last year of Allende's life. On the day of the Allende coup in 1973, Guzmán was imprisoned for two weeks, along with thousands of others, in Santiago's national stadium. Spirited out of the country with his cans of film, he received crucial help from a fellow documentary filmmaker, Chris Marker, whose films had inspired Guzmán in his teens. Guzmán finished the film in Cuba, and began life as an exile from Pinochet's Chile. Other important films about Chile would follow from Guzmán's camera, , including Chile: Obstinate Memory, and a film which chided American participation in another proxy conflict in Latin America, Justice and the Generals.

Pinochet's rule meant a Chilean Dark Ages of violence, corruption, and fear. An entire country cowered behind locked doors while he strutted at the head of military parades and ordered the deaths of thousands of opponents and intellectuals. When he "retired" to a well-upholstered life at the expense of the very nation he had raped, he did so via an agreement which seemed to guarantee him immunity from his crimes. But when Pinochet visited London in 1998 to see his old friend Margaret Thatcher, he became vulnerable to two remarkable men, prosecutor Carlos Cantressana and judge Baltazar Garzon. 25 years after his rise to power, and long after anyone believed it could be done, these men had him arrested and indicted. The bill against Pinochet eventually ran to over 200 charges.

The Pinochet Case documents what followed: a year and a half of house arrest for Pinochet, the old man finally a spectator, rather than a maker, of history; the diplomatic intricacies of an international trial, and finally, justice in sight for the living, and the dignity of mourning for the disappeared. Patricio Guzmán was there with his camera, as he had been since the beginning.

Ariel Dorfman, long a bitter critic of South American militarism and its Cold War sponsors, wrote rapturously of Patricio Guzmán's cinematic saga of Chile:

Patricio Guzmán's heartbreaking portrait of Chile's revolution, the Pinochet coup, and the long entangled aftermath will be considered in centuries to come one of the most eloquent and daring explorations of revolution and repression, hope and memory, to survive our sorry times. What Guzmán passionate and clinically observes in Chile is valid for the whole world.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

The following is taken from a review by Philip Kennicott that appeared in the Washington Post, December 13, 2002:

Peter Schaad, a Swiss businessman and friend of former dictator Augusto Pinochet, calls the man who terrorized the Chilean people for 17 years "a tough old fox" and "a patriot." Schaad appears in Patricio Guzmán’s documentary "The Pinochet Case"; he is not the only defender of Pinochet in Guzmán’s film, but the affection in his voice, the admiration, the armchair pragmatism of a man who can dismiss a tyrant’s crimes as just so many eggs necessary for the great omelet of stability, democracy and prosperity, sets him apart. Schaad is the Everyman of political complacency, the reasonable voice against which angry voices, wounded voices, chanting-in-the-street voices are easily made to seem like so much unfortunate and unseemly noise.

But it is the angry voices in Guzmán’s film that linger in the mind, persuade and finally enrage the viewer. Guzmán, a Chilean director, was arrested five days after Pinochet drove the elected Socialist government of Salvador Allende from power in September 1973. He has been documenting his country’s troubles on film for three decades. His magnum opus, the 270-minute "Battle of Chile," was produced in 1973-1979, and released to wide critical acclaim. "The Pinochet Case" has been received as an elegiac coda to that epic.

It is a tightly controlled and excruciatingly painful film, in which raw testimony from the victims is woven around a legal yarn, following the surprising decision of a Spanish court to issue a warrant against Pinochet for human rights violations and his even more surprising 1998 arrest in England (which he visited for periodic shopping sprees). As the law tightens its grip, appeals are lost and his immunity stripped, the film hints at the possibility of the rarest justice: a once untouchably powerful man brought face to face with his victims….

Guzmán’s film begins beneath a ravishingly blue sky, in a stretch of cold mountain desert, where the search is on for the bodies of Pinochet’s missing victims, estimated at more than 3,000. The vegetation is all desert scrub, and the desert exerts its primal emotional power of exposure. Victims of the torture are emotionally never far from this desert world, naked to the bright exposure of the camera.

Film about this kind of pain is by necessity voyeuristic. Guzmán neither exploits nor shades his subject’s anguish. Torture with electric wires, bodies strapped to metal bed frames, young men beaten to mush with chains, prisoners living in their own filth, dunkings in fouled water, and psychological humiliation are all recounted….

Perhaps sentiment shouldn’t enter into politics. Perhaps Peter Schaad is right, and all of this is a small price to pay for having defeated the specter of communism in Chile. But it will take a strong stomach for the ordinary viewer to maintain an appetite for Pinochet apologetics after this litany of suffering.

Or a willingness to put power above all else, as does Margaret Thatcher in a chilling moment. Thatcher was always one of Pinochet’s strongest supporters. She admired his war on labor unions; she conducted one of her own. And she appears in Guzmán’s film making a social call on the Senator for Life from Chile in his luxurious residence, where he’s under house arrest. She reminds the cameras that Pinochet brought democracy to Chile, and she thanks him for his help during the Falklands War.

It was the 1982 Falklands War, against Argentina, that made possible Thatcher’s reelection after her unpopular assault on England’s working class. The surge of patriotism distracted angry voters from high unemployment and the vast redistribution of wealth and power that Thatcher was putting in place. It’s a chummy scene, Thatcher and her friend Pinochet, just two old foxes reminiscing about the good old days.

It’s also a scene that suggests the political strings that thread the story of Pinochet into the larger political web. Pinochet’s coup occurred on Sept. 11, 1973, and for obvious reasons, its anniversary doesn’t attract much attention in the United States these days. The man appointed to look into why the United States was vulnerable to terrorist attack is Henry Kissinger, one of the architects of covert U.S. support for Pinochet’s takeover. One could chuckle at the irony of it all, all those old foxes and their fewer than six degrees of separation. Or one could get very angry about the undone work of accountability, justice and reconciliation, and not just in Chile.

The following is taken from a review by Stephen Holden that appeared in the New York Times, Sept. 11, 2002:

You can feel the wheels of justice relentlessly grinding toward a day of judgment in Patricio Guzmán’s eloquent, meticulously structured documentary film "The Pinochet Case." A gripping step-by-step account of the case mounted by a Spanish judge against the former Chilean military dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet for human rights abuses, the movie re-examines one of the most painful episodes of recent Latin American history and its aftermath. Sober political and legal analysis alternates with grim first-hand accounts of torture and murder in a film that has the structure of a choral symphony that swells to a bittersweet finale….

The bringing to moral account of the general was the coordinated effort of judges, lawyers, prosecutors, human rights organizations and victims from 15 countries. Even though we know the outcome, the seesawing of the general’s fate in the arguments of competing lawyers has the stomach-knotting suspense of a legal thriller, while the testimony of witnesses lends the film a resonant undertone of tragedy. Leading the film’s list of judicial heroes are the Spanish judge Baltazar Garzón, and the prosecutor Carlos Castresana, who found the legal justification for the general’s extradition and courageously persisted in an uphill campaign to bring him to justice….

"The Pinochet Case" is a beautifully layered mosaic that is all the more powerful for never raising its voice to a shout and for keeping the tears to a minimum. We are told that the military regime took from the Nazis the technique of "disappearing" people by arresting them, holding them in detention in undisclosed locations for months and sometimes years at a time, while denying their existence to desperate relatives and friends. Most were ultimately disposed of through burial in far-flung locations, and some were simply dropped into the ocean.

The film visits the notorious Villa Grimaldi, a nondescript complex of buildings in Santiago that was the military regime’s prime detention center, and the camera lingers over a bed that was wired electrically into a torture device.

The most powerful leitmotif is a visual Greek chorus of the general’s victims who are periodically shown in a group portrait casting a collective gaze of calm accusation into the camera’s eye. Over the course of the film individual members of that group recall the personal horrors they experienced in detention. Some are speaking publicly for the very first time….

"The Pinochet Case" suggests that justice, even the kind of mild justice meted out to the general, can bring a certain satisfaction. And in Chile, the case has profoundly altered the country’s historical memory. No longer will equestrian statues of General Pinochet proliferate. Nor will he be hailed as liberator and have his name attached to public institutions. The indelible final image is the unveiling of a statue of Salvador Allende in the heart of Santiago.

"Patricio Guzmán’s heartbreaking probe of Chile’s revolution, the Pinochet coup, and the long entangled aftermath will be considered in centuries to come one of the most eloquent and daring explorations of revolution and repression, hope and memory, to survive our sorry times. What Guzmán passionately and clinically observes in Chile is valid for the whole world."

— Ariel Dorfman


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