A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman may be only a stolid, serviceable documentary about the titular Death and the Maiden author, who was forced to flee Chile by General Augusto Pinochet’s military coup in 1973. But as far as portraits of Chilean revolutionaries returning home after decades in exile go, it’s still considerably more engaging than Carmen Castillo’s similar, rambling Calle Sante Fe. As director Peter Raymont’s film revolves almost exclusively around interviews with Dorfman—both at his current Durham, North Carolina residence as well as during a 2006 trip back to Chile—it’s hard not to view the proceedings as an autobiography-by-proxy in which the celebrated writer’s version of events are never challenged but, instead, simply taken at face value. Nonetheless, even if his inspiring story (which also includes time spent living in America, Argentina and various European cities) is recounted in a rather straightforward first-person voice, Dorfman’s analysis of his personal and political convictions is astute. The writer’s thoughts on the nature of home and exile—which he views as both a tragic denial of self and history, and yet a liberating force that removes the safeguards of one’s life (“It tore me open”)—are expressively articulated, and the juxtaposition of his memories with pertinent archival clips carries an emotional punch. Too bad, then, that A Promise to the Dead’s depiction of Dorfman and his 30-year quest to give voice to those silenced by Pinochet’s tyrannical regime doesn’t more frequently deliver a visceral charge. Whether it’s the schematism of Dorfman revisiting many of the momentous sites at which he spent time during his three years working as Salvador Allende’s Cultural Minister, the clunky time-lapse sequences featuring Dorfman gazing out at crowded city streets, or the intriguing but under-examined bonds between Chile and America’s respective 9/11s, the film has a structural pedestrianism that undercuts the courage, determination and eloquence of its amazing subject.
A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman @ Human Rights Watch International Film Festival
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.