Documentry filmmaker Patricio Guzmn fled his native Chile in the mid-1970s when the military dictator Augusto Pinochet came to power after a U.S.-backed coup d'tat toppled the government of the democratically elected president Salvador Allende. In the nearly five decades since then, Guzmn has lived in exile from the country in which he was born and raised, although it has been the subject of so many of his films, including The Battle of Chile (La batalla de Chile), his three-part masterwork of political/historical cinema released between 1975 and 1979; Chile, the Obstinate Memory (Chile, la memoria obstinada, 1997); The Pinochet Case (Le cas Pinochet, 2001); and Salvador Allende (2004). Guzmn may have left Chile physically, but the country has remained constant in his mind and soul.
And now we have The Cordillera of Dreams (La cordillre des songes), which won the Best Documentary prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival. It merges Guzmn's commitment to the political history of his native country with his growing fascination with the mystical and the metaphysical and the poetic, which we also saw in his previous film, The Pearl Button (El botn de ncar, 2015). Like that film, The Cordillera of Dreams is fraught with memory and loss, haunted by the horrors of the past and how those horrors have persisted into the present, shaping the current economy and culture of Chile. Pinochet and his murderous regime may be long gone, but his reign over Chile shaped it in such a way that his presence will be felt for perhaps decades to come.
The cordillera of the title refers to the Chilean Coast Range of the Andes Mountains, which runs right up to the edge of Santiago, the city in which Guzmn was born and raised and educated and the site of the military coup d'tat that changed the course of Chilean history and culture. As Guzmn states early on, he wasn't much interested in the mountains when he was a child, perhaps because they were always there and thus easy to take for granted. But now, having spent much of his adult life in exile in Paris, the mountains beckon him a new way. The first part of the film is firmly fixated on the grandiosity of the mountains, and Guzmn very nearly overwhelms us with sublime imagery of the snow-covered peaks, plunging valleys, and ethereal clouds through which they rise. Guzmn narration is both grandiose and deeply personal, and we get the sense that we are hearing the voice of an artist in awe of the greatness of the natural world. To that end, Guzmn interviews a number of Chilean artists-painters and sculptors and a singer-who are similarly moved by their proximity to the cordillera and how it has affected their work.
But, soon Guzmn's attention turns back to those pivotal years in the early 1970s when his country took a turn into despotism, and those gorgeous images of snow-capped peaks disappearing into the clouds are replaced by difficult-to-watch video and film footage of protestors being beaten, sprayed with water cannons, and rounded up by the Chilean military. Soldiers decked out in riot gear, tanks, and trucks rumble down the streets of Santiago, an apt symbol of raw, violent power suppressing anything that might challenge their authority (later in the film, Guzmn notes how those streets were paved with stones takes from the cordillera, thus connecting the mountains with the country's politics). Guzmn spends significant time with Pablo Salas, a documentarian who has spent much of his life since the early 1980s filming Chile's political history and whose office is crammed with shelves of videotapes and hard drives containing thousands of hours of footage, some of which Guzmn incorporates into his film.
The result is something quite extraordinary-a poetic political-historical documentary that finds a sublime balance between the horrors of human atrocity, the potential for redemption and growth, and the enormity of the world in which it all takes place. Guzmn imbues the film with a deep sense of sadness and loss, but the film also stands as a bulwark against fascism and oppression, because just as the cordillera continues to stand, so do men and women like Salas, who risk their lives to document and tell the stories that those in power want to suppress, to make the historical record as towering as the mountains beneath which it unfolds.
Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Icarus Films Home Video
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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