The Pinochet Case, now showing at Film Forum, is a magisterial documentary about the force of memory. Patricio Guzmán – whose three-part documentary The Battle of Chile, released between 1975 and 1979, remains one of the most powerful of modern historical indictments – is both agitator and artist. It’s rare for a political documentarian to combine such disparate sensibilities. (Usually, the artist is sacrificed.) But Guzmán’s movies have the thrust of manifestoes and the layered richness of epic novels. The Battle of Chile was about the coup, led by General Augusto Pinochet on September 11, 1973, that overthrew the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende. The Pinochet Case is about the legal maneuverings that culminated in 1998 with Pinochet’s arrest, while he was vacationing in London, for human-rights abuses. The outcome was triumphant yet devastating: The ex-dictator was detained, stripped of diplomatic immunity, and placed under house arrest for over 500 days at an estate outside London, but British authorities ultimately deemed him medically unfit to stand trial. Upon his return to Chile, Pinochet, in his eighties, faced hundreds of criminal accusations, and in January 2001, he was put under house arrest; charges against the infirm general were dropped this summer.
Pinochet was in power until 1990, when democracy, of a sort, returned to Chile. But because he was never tried in a court of law, the jubilation of his opponents in this film is severely compromised. Talking directly into the camera, an attorney for victims of the regime chastises the Chilean government for its “barbarity” in “raising the flag of sovereignty against an act of international justice.”
And yet such is the thirst for vindication that the victims may not fully comprehend just how much was accomplished in the court of international opinion. Their revenge, as described by a mother whose two sons were shot in the back of the head in 1985 by military police, is “just staying alive” in order to bear witness.
The witnesses – who endured a dictatorship in which thousands were tortured, murdered, or “disappeared” – are shown at one point massed together in accusatory silence. Guzmán’s camera pans slowly across their faces. Their silence gives way to individual recitations full of sorrow and horror. An old woman talks of the son she lost as her “saint,” while she carefully, almost ritualistically, places his photo on her chest. A woman who was 19 when her husband was tortured and executed remembers how, in his absence, she would pack (and repack) his briefcase in anticipation of his return. Finally she stopped and told their 5-year-old son that his father was not coming back. “If I want him to trust me, I must tell him the truth,” she explains. Another woman, Cecilia, who was arrested in 1981 and not released until 1992, describes how she and her fellow prisoners would keep sane by pretending to have phone conversations with each other, talking as if it were years later and they were free, now mothers and grandmothers. She also describes how electrodes were inserted into her vagina – a torture tactic that was a jailhouse specialty.
Listening to such descriptions, how can we calmly assimilate a newsreel scene in which Margaret Thatcher pays a house call on Pinochet and tells him that it is he who brought democracy to Chile? The Pinochet Case is a searing album of remembrance from those who, having survived, suffered most.
Claude Miller’s Alias Betty, adapted from a Ruth Rendell novel, is a complicated thriller that gets more interesting as its complications pile up. Sandrine Kiberlain plays Betty Fisher, a best-selling novelist whose unstable mother (Nicole Garcia, looking gorgeously ravaged) kidnaps a child to replace the boy her daughter lost in an accident. From this well-meaning madness springs much that is satisfyingly unpredictable. It’s a solid movie about people whose lives are anything but.
The Pinochet Case
Directed by Patricio Guzmán.
Directed by Claude Miller; starring Sandrine Kiberlain and Nicole Garcia.