Like many countries, Chile has transitioned from dictatorship to democracy within the past 30 years, and as is often the case during transitional periods, not all of the population has supported the move. Although a 1988 referendum emphatically voted Augusto Pinochet out of office, he remained a nostalgic symbol for many until his death in 2006. Current Chilean President Sebastián Piñera voted against Pinochet in 1988, but publicly protested his arrest in London a decade later, saying that no one should be able to judge Chile’s former leader except Chileans themselves.
And the Chilean film The Death of Pinochet passes judgment. It’s an explicitly post-dictatorship film. This becomes clear in one of its first shots, a perfectly composed profile of a woman’s face inside a ring of varicolored flowers. Our eyes move from pink, to red, to white, to green, to purple, before shifting to the center and to her thin smile. It’s mid-December, 2006. Her world is so bright because the General has died.
Not every Chilean feels this way, of course. The filmmakers, Ivan Osnovikiff and Bettina Perut, also offer squarely framed profiles of marchers in mourning. “I’m 34 years old, and this country was better under the dictatorship!” a woman shouts; another says that she’ll miss her old leader, who was as great as the Führer.
I often didn’t know where to stand. The speakers address the camera in overtly formal compositions that made me unsure whether I was watching fact or fiction. The film offers few statistics about the Pinochet regime and many impressions of it. At times you can’t even see the person who’s speaking, as the film cuts in to close-ups of eyes or teeth as their words pour out.
Initially one senses that this strategy was a form of witness protection, but since we see the speakers’ faces at other points, that’s ultimately not what it’s about. It seems more a move toward defamiliarization. Even if the person is crying or upset, the focus on a small part of the body rather than the whole encourages you to register the act of communication, then the particular words, and only then the emotions behind them. You see how people feel without being pushed toward feeling the same way. The eyes and mouths become metonyms for the film’s refusal to give greater context, which to me, more than anything, feels liberating. Considering how many officially stamped lies a dictatorship tells, the freedom to form one’s own story is a blessing.
The film’s tone of freedom plays as surreally, sarcastically comic, and registers best with an ornery old rebel. The bearded, long-haired gordinho had never been as happy as he was the day he learned Pinochet died, and to celebrate he takes to the streets in a bright red Santa Clause suit. Nobody can oppress him now, he says; Pinochet’s death has freed him to live the life that he wants. “They’re no longer beating a Chilean citizen. They’re no longer beating a South American. They’re beating a world-famous character.”
But even if the dictator is dead, the film suggests, the dictatorship isn’t. One of The Death of Pinochet’s most amazing shots occurs at the general’s wake. We see the body on the left side of the frame, shadows cast over his eyes. As people walk up to it on the right side, their heads partly cut off, the shadows extend; with each passing mourner, they grow a little longer. The corpse’s head and hands disappear completely inside a deep pool of shadow, though its clothes still appears clearly. The man is gone. His suit remains.
In contrast to The Death of Pinochet’s impressionistic suggestions, Che, a New Man tells straightforward journalism, and tells it very well. Again, the method suits the subject; so much muddy myth has been made of Ernesto Che Guevara’s legacy that a bit of clarity seems essential. For the film and its director, Tristán Bauer, to say that he’s a new man is to say he was a man, period, something Steven Soderbergh’s Che, for all its virtues, ultimately didn’t pull off; no matter how meticulously, mechanically methodical Benicio del Toro’s Che behaved, you never quite forgot that you were watching a famous actor, often in makeup. When Soderbergh’s Che visits his wife and child in glasses and a bald wig to protect himself, it registers as a poignant disguise; when Bauer shows photos of Che posing with his family in his new look, the change in his appearance shocks.
Part of why it does is the general effort Bauer’s film makes to present Che as an open, loving figure (again, in contrast to Soderbergh’s quiet, distant one). The archival footage that comprises most of the film’s images, which the filmmakers smartly present in 35mm blowup rather than digital transfer, presents home movies and photos of Che as a schoolboy, his father helping him get through his nightly asthma attacks; the soundtrack tells us that, later in life, he signed a letter to his father with “A big hug from your obstinate and prodigal son, Ernesto.” His mother was even more important in his formation, caring for him and teaching him when he was sick, and instilling a love of reading in him. Later in the film we see her astonished, proud look at her son’s return from the Cuban Revolution; it’s no surprise that her abrupt, sudden death sent him rushing back home. The movie suggests that she instilled a sense of love in him that he went on to share with his wives and children, shown posing with him in still photos, as love poems that he recorded for his second wife, Aleida, play on the soundtrack.
By grounding the man in his love for his family, the film presents Che’s revolutions as an effort to love the rest of the world. “The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love,” he wrote. “It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality… We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity will be transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force.” Yet, unlike a lot of Che stories, the film doesn’t romanticize him. While a romantic often simply writes and thinks, Che used his words as a basis for action. The same impulse that led him toward Shakespeare and Neruda led him to Marxist philosophy, and to forming his own plans through the numerous notebooks he kept throughout his life. The film narrates some excerpts from them, and I would have loved to have heard many more.
Most readers know about how his plans led to the successful Cuban Revolution, then to the failed Bolivian one. The film also presents Che’s lesser-known involvement with several others. An initially puzzling early shot of a sick African child gains relevance later when we learn about Che’s efforts to support Patrice Lumumba and the end of Belgian colonization in the Congo; Lumumba was ultimately assassinated (with C.I.A. help), and many other third-world revolutions based in humanistic ideals eventually led to murderous regimes. A disconnect lay between Che’s belief that revolutionary leaders should have no material interest in their fights and the reality of leaders seizing lands and goods shortly after taking office. “They are going back to capitalism,” he remarked sadly after one revolution. This was more the fault of the government than of the citizens. The film doesn’t say that he was too good for this world, nor that he was a fool for trying to improve it. The Cuban Revolution worked, and is still working; for all its problems, the main reason that Castro’s government has stayed in power since then is that the people have supported it, and if you watch Michael Moore visiting Cuban hospitals in Sicko you can get a sense of why. Che did not succeed in bringing worldwide revolution, but he offered a template that people have used ever since.
There are also people who claim he was a thief and murderer, and although the film doesn’t address them, it does present its view of Che as partial and provisional. Bauer films himself and his co-writer, Carolina Scaglione, visiting archives of Che-based materials in La Paz, and states that there were many documents that they didn’t and (said the army) couldn’t look at. But they still present viewers with much more about Che than has been available beforehand. Up to now, two kinds of images have primarily represented him—the first Alberto Korda’s photograph of a live, beret-wearing Che posing in side profile, the second the various photos and film footage of his corpse. Both have been used mainly as revolutionary symbols. Bauer’s film presents us with many more, and reminds us the subject was human.
By doing this, I think, the film honors not only Che, but also his goals, because the recognition of one person’s humanity indirectly means the recognition of humanity in general. To celebrate the end of one dictatorship is to hope for the end of all dictatorships, and to espouse a desire for one person’s freedom is to express an ideal of freedom in general. That’s partly why I think it would be wrong to call The Death of Pinochet’s approach subjective and Che, a New Man’s approach objective, since both movies report the human factor. The Death of Pinochet records real people saying how they actually feel, just as Che, a New Man frames itself as someone’s investigation.
The São Paulo International Film Festival runs through November 3rd. Festival information can be found here.