“We’re so dark, Chileans,” Father Sanchez (Hugo Medina) chuckles to himself after a grimly amusing aside in “1976,” during a family dinner where at least on the surface everything appears as normal as it can be. Kids can be heard playing in the background and the conversation between the adults is generally pleasant with a suggestion the government is stealing funds out of people’s pensions quickly denied by the priest before the talk can take a turn for the worse. A fish that sits picked dry at the center of the table is surely the sign of a successful evening for Carmen (Aline Kuppenheim), who should be able to relax after all the work that’s been put into making sure her guests are comfortable, but relief is difficult to come by these days. Even in the warm glow of the beach house she’s been charged with renovating, that darkness is something that never goes away.
Set during the early days of Augusto Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship, rarely referenced directly in Manuela Martelli’s absorbing drama when to say it was a pervasive force in all aspects of life in Chile would be stating the obvious, “1976” centers on a favor that Father Sanchez has asked of Carmen to take care of a young man named Elias (Nicolás Sepúlveda) who has been shot in the leg and needs covert care. Personal details are largely avoided so as to create plausible deniability for later, but Carmen is uniquely suited to provide such aid, once having ambitions to join the Red Cross if her father hadn’t insisted on her starting a family, though her husband Miguel (Alejandro Goic) ended up becoming a doctor with an ability to secure any necessary prescriptions discretely. The fact that Elias and Carmen need to be strangers for one another, despite the intimacy of their meetings, is indicative of what has become of all interactions in the country have become when no one can be counted on to trust one another and the fear of being hauled off by the police for the most specious of reasons is omnipresent.
Martelli and co-writer Alejandra Moffat waste no time in setting up such a chilling reality, opening at a hardware store where Carmen stands by helplessly buying paint as she hears the cries of someone outside being thrown in a paddy wagon, and throughout the filmmakers unnerve with the film’s use of sound, not only as well-deployed allusions to the outside world that its lead tries to distance herself from, but in composer Mariá Portugal’s jangly mix of synthetic and organic sounds that arrives when you’re least expecting it to. Although the muted color palette and deliberate pace will remind of the paranoid thrillers of the era it’s set in, Martelli has the benefit of history to concern itself less with pinpointing villains than the gradual corrosion of the soul that happens when everything has to take place behind closed doors, figuring out one’s place in a society where people can simply disappear. (In that respect, it would make a crackling double feature with Andreas Fontana’s “Azor,” set just to the east in Argentina a few years later.) Kuppenheim is captivating as Carmen, letting the occasional emotion through a steely facade, and when information is passed from one character to another at great personal cost, every expression and every intricate detail Martelli and crew invest in “1976” feels invaluable.
“1976” will screen again in Directors Fortnight on May 26th at 5:45 pm at the Theatre Croisette, May 27th at the Cinema Le Raimu at 10 am and the Cinema Alexandre III at 4:30 pm.