Putting her talents behind the camera, Chilean actor-turned-director Manuela Martelli’s debut feature is a gripping study of paranoia during the early years of the Pinochet regime. As historical noir, Martelli’s film is thrilling, but as a document of the comforts of complicity and the terror of resistance, 1976 is visceral.
Carmen (Aline Küppenheim) is a well-to-do bourgeois Chilean woman, married to a wealthy doctor, spending her days reading literature to a blind group through her church and socialising with her upper crust friends. While picking out paint for her kitchen, her morning is disrupted by the sounds of a woman being violently arrested by Pinochet’s forces. The camera fixes on the paint mixer as Carmen and the workers in the shop avert their gazes, silently ignoring the terror on the street, hopeful, perhaps, that if one pretends it isn’t there then it won’t find them.
It does, however, seem destined to find Carmen, whose background in the Red Cross is enough for her priest, Father Sánchez (Hugo Medina), to ask her to nurse back to health a young resistance fighter, Elías (Nicolás Sepúlveda) suffering from a gunshot wound to the leg. It is an extraordinary act of trust on his part, though her discomfort with the right-wing remarks that her husband and his friends casually make is so palpable – at least to anyone looking – that Sánchez knows Carmen’s compassion is a good bet.
Nevertheless, that compassion comes at a cost. All authoritarian regimes are about the destruction of individual humanity: to retain one’s soul is in itself an act of political resistance. Her act of care is enough to cross over into dissidence, and all the summer houses and yachts and fancy friends can’t change that. Part of the brilliance of Martelli’s film is in the way the paranoia tightens even when very little is ostensibly happening; as Elías recovers, Carmen meets with other resistance fighters to plan his escape. Each meeting is a fraught web of convoluted bus journeys, circular walks and code phrases to avoid detection, yet nothing ever seems to move forward other than the fear of inevitable capture.
Martelli’s use of long lenses for exterior scenes, coupled with Küppenheim’s increasingly fraught demeanour invoke the paranoia of 1970s cinema, while a stunning dolly shot in woodland, with children playing around Carmen while she waits fearfully in her car, tips almost into surrealist horror territory. But it’s Mariá Portugal’s score that truly captures both the era and the fear, with a period electronic mix whose sharp, discordant melodies transform every shape in the mirror into sinister faces, hide danger behind every corner, and turn every neighbour into an informer.
Early on, one of Carmen’s family carries two goldfish home in a miserably tiny glass jar. They appear, barely able to move, sat on the window sill throughout the film, observable from every angle. As the noose of paranoia constricts, so too the panopticonic jar shrinks until she can barely move. The terror of the authoritarian state is not simply that it does terrible things to its citizens, but that it can do terrible things, and sometimes doesn’t. Violence is rarely equally distributed, but the fear of it settles on everyone. Later, there is a shot of the goldfish in a more suitable pool of water, apparently having been released from their prison. We are left to wonder whether Carmen shall escape hers.