A present-tense record of nation-splitting turmoil, Patricio Guzmán’s monumental documentary The Battle of Chile remains a landmark of activist cinema. Chronicling the events leading to the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s democratically elected socialist regime by a conservative military coup, it offers a staggering blend of history and narrative. “The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie,” the first of the film’s three mammoth segments, opens in the excitement of the 1970 election and closes in terror, as the street clashes between workers, students, and soldiers yield to bullets. Violence intensifies in the second part (“The Coup d’Etat”) as Allende’s government is besieged by business-controlled strikes and finally taken down by the Nixon/Kissinger-backed 1973 junta that placed Augusto Pinochet in power. Edited from bits of often risky coverage taken during the period, the first two parts have the force of an early Rossellini picture. Attuned to the active political engagement of the Chilean people, the camera marches in rallies, rides with protestors in the back of trucks, and, in an unforgettable moment that embodies the commitment and the dangers of the crew’s reportage, is literally shot down during militarist interventions. Guzmán shapes the footage not with the agitprop montage of fellow Latin American cine-militants Santiago Alvarez and Fernando Solanas, but rather with a newsreel-verité urgency that’s both lucid and sweeping. The events are presented with such you-are-there vividness that it’s not until the recap of the third part (“The Power of the People”) that one realizes that the film is also an elegy by exiles who documented a country’s upheavals firsthand only to be forced to analyze the ensuing oppression from afar. More than practically any other documentary, Battle of Chile posits film as mediator, witness, and participant in volatile historical landscapes.
Even a shoddy transfer of this important, long-unavailable film would have been forgivable, and the crisp Icarus Films DVD captures the immediacy of its sights and sounds without airbrushing their vital roughness.
Patricio Guzmán's 1997 documentary Chile, Obstinate Memory plays as an arresting companion piece to the film, following the filmmaker's return to the country after 24 years in exile and catching up with Allende's widow, survivors of Pinochet's death squads, and students having their startling first brush with their nation's troubled past. A 22-minute interview with Guzmán sheds valuable light on the documentary's hazardous production, while an insert booklet includes Pauline Kael's review of the film and Cecilia Ricciarelli's essay on the director's style of cinematic resistance.
A monument to cine-activist commitment as well as a political thriller that would have had Costa-Gravas and Oliver Stone furiously taking notes, this epic documentary finally makes its triumphant DVD debut.