Icarus Films // 1979 // 262 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // January 4th, 2010
The passions of a people divided -- a nation on the brink of civil war.
In terms of sheer raw tonnage, The Battle of Chile is a remarkable documentary. It chronicles, in almost minute detail, the day-by-day events that began in 1972 with the increasingly Socialist government of Chilean president Salvador Allende, his growing opposition, and the 1973 coup that killed him and installed a military dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet. Over nearly four-and-a-half hours of footage, you'll see people preparing for the 1973 congressional elections that eventually led to a crisis between Allende and the right-controlled Parliament, how members of Allende's left-wing coalition fatally splintered when attempting to institute a broad socialist agenda in Chile, and how the increasing intransigence of both Allende and the right -- neither of whom, it seemed, were willing to compromise in any meaningful way -- gradually led to a standoff that could have been resolved democratically. Instead, the military, backed by the tacit and presumably financial backing of the CIA, instituted a violent coup. For the next two decades, Pinochet's government would become one of the most infamous in Latin America, mainly because of its appalling human-rights record and number of dissidents who were arrested and executed without trials. It would not be until the late '70s that the full extent of this story would really be told, and, even then, not within Chile itself.
It's because of the amount of revealing footage that The Battle of Chile is worth seeing. It is not, however, the definitive document on the coup, even despite its length. Much of the problem is in the choices made by director Patricio Guzman, who shot almost all of the film and narrates it. His bias wouldn't be so significant except that he calls attention to it so blatantly that he winds up undermining the story he's trying to tell. More often than not, you'll be too distracted with his mistakes to really appreciate the considerable effort he put into the film.
For an example, take the way that the film is structured. The Battle of Chile is split into three parts: The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie, The Coup D'état, and The Power of the People. That the first part has such a dismissive title clearly indicates where Guzman's sympathies lie (only a collegiate leftist would dismiss anyone who isn't working-class as "bourgeoisie"), but even as hard as Guzman tries to stack the deck in favor of Allende, you'll still notice some holes in Guzman's thesis. Despite his claim that Allende enjoyed the greatest popular support, the 1973 congressional elections gave the right-wing anti-Allende coalition a sixty percent majority in Parliament, which, though not enough to impeach Allende, was more than enough to stop his programs. For Guzman to act as if the Parliament, which was democratically elected just like Allende was, is obliged to simply rubber-stamp Allende's programs and dismiss their concerns as insurrectionary is ludicrous. If he's leaving something out that only students of Chilean government history should know, then he should have presented it here.
Guzman's adolescent Marxism becomes downright obtrusive as the films progress. When he films a strike by copper miners that undercuts Allende's attempts to nationalize the copper industry, Guzman sneers that copper miners are the "aristocrats" of Chilean workers and that they are "more than well-paid." Apparently, only the lowest, least-paid workers count as real proletariat in Guzman's mind, and workers who dare to act in their own self-interest, even if that interest contradicts the needs of a putative benefactor, are class traitors. Guzman's obsessive fetishism of the working class becomes downright comical in the third part, when he spends a full half-hour relating how many college-educated professionals and middle-class factory managers decided to boycott a day of work to protest Allende's programs. To hear Guzman tell it, the floor-level workers all worked just as well as usual and no one noticed any problems. In other words, in Guzman's (and, presumably, Allende's) vision of Chile, college-educated engineers and scientists -- in fact, the entire middle class -- have no role to play whatsoever. Does Guzman wonder, then, why Allende engendered such opposition?
It's too bad that Guzman is so intent on proving his loyalty to Allende, because when he drops the excessive proselytizing, The Battle of Chile is worth watching. As a director, Guzman definitely has talent. By seamlessly editing the footage into a driving narrative, Guzman has captured for any viewer what it must have felt like during those tense and tumultuous days as Chile gradually fell apart. The fact that Guzman has also found room to interview more people than just government talking heads is also significant-even despite his obvious disdain for their point of view, he does let middle-class citizens who are not enamored of Allende to express themselves without shouting them down. He has also uncovered some remarkable and even horrifying footage. There's footage of an Argentine cameraman being shot by government troops that epitomizes the gradual disintegration of Chilean society more graphically than anything else could have. The film of the 1973 coup is especially heartrending. Watching military planes bombing the presidential palace and killing Allende is a shattering end to all of the hopes, even those of Allende's opponents, that the crisis could have been settled peaceably. In those moments, which is to say when Guzman shuts up and lets his film do the actual talking, The Battle of Chile is an important document.
To get a better idea for what Guzman should have done, this DVD set also includes Chile: Obstinate Memory, an hour-long film Guzman shot in 1997. Because of its pro-Allende bent, The Battle of Chile was banned in Chile for over twenty years and it wasn't until the collapse of Pinochet's regime in the '90s that Guzman, who lived in exile, could return to screen it. Obstinate Memory follows Guzman as he finally returns to Chile to show the film to various audiences and also reconnects with many of the interviewees he talked to back in the early '70s. It's fascinating to see the perspective that younger viewers, many of whom had only just been born during the coup, have on the film. Some champion Allende while others explain that Allende's brand of socialism would have surely crippled Chile economically. Here Guzman doesn't editorialize as much as he does in the earlier film, letting each subject give a point of view and accepting that there really are no easy answers. The film also serves as an elegy to Jorge Müller Silva, Guzman's cameraman during the shooting of The Battle of Chile, who was arrested by Pinochet's regime in 1974 and was never seen alive again. This added dimension makes Obstinate Memory an excellent companion piece and Icarus was right in including it with this package.
Icarus, however, didn't quite do so well with this film technically. The PCM mono mix is good, clearly audible and well-presented. The full-screen transfer, on the other hand, is not good. Though each 90-minute part gets its own disc, they still somehow manage to look far too compressed, with considerable artefacting and blurring throughout. At least Icarus has included, in addition to Obstinate Memory and a 16-page booklet with various essays and reviews, a 20-minute interview with Guzman where he explains how he shot and edited the film. After he describes how he and most of his surviving film crew were temporarily detained and forced to smuggle the raw footage out of Chile so that it wouldn't be confiscated by Pinochet's minions, you'll have a new-found respect for the tribulations he went through to make the film, however flawed it might be.
It's those flaws, however, that make it hard to recommend The Battle of Chile wholeheartedly. Here is a revealing document of one of the most important and tragic stories in history, one in which the United States, sadly, must be considered complicit, and anyone who is even mildly curious should see it. They should also, though, take far too much of what Guzman says with a grain of salt, because by inserting such a heavy handed and intrusive narration into the film, Guzman winds up undercutting its effectiveness. For all its length, this is still not the whole story.
Guilty of not doing justice to this subject.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Icarus Films
* Full Frame
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 262 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Film
* IMDb: Part 1
* IMDb: Part 2
* IMDb: Part 3
* IMDb: Chile, Obstinate Memory