Directed by Florian Gallenberger
Starring Emma Watson, Daniel Bruhl, Michael Nyqvist
Released on 1st July 2016
When Costa-Gavras made Missing back in 1982, the Chilean coup was still comparatively fresh in the memory – it happened in ‘73 – and General Pinochet had another nine years to go as dictator. His reign is still a comparatively little known period of modern history, the most recent film on the subject being No (2013), which covered the country’s 1988 referendum (sorry to use the word) and the movement to oust him from power.
Now it’s the turn of The Colony to spotlight his regime, this time set against the backdrop of the coup and its immediate aftermath.
Air hostess Emma Watson arrives in Santiago to be with her photographer boyfriend, Daniel Bruhl, who’s become involved with a group of radicals. Days after she arrives, the coup takes place and the couple are rounded up with thousands of others. Bruhl is whisked away and, after her release, Watson sets about trying to track him down. Her search leads her to the remote Colonia Dignidad, apparently a religious cult where people arrive but never leave.
You’d think that being based on true events would give the film some credibility and emotional pull. It should, but it doesn’t. There’s irritants and distractions a-plenty, all of which undermine what is clearly a sincere effort to shine a light on a very dark corner of modern history. The Watson/Bruhl love story is borderline slushy and only strikes one really true note late on in the film: during their escape bid, for one fleeting moment it looks like she’s going to blame him for their entire predicament. But no, that would ruin the romance, so it’s squandered. And when she first arrives at the Colonia Dignidad, she’s dressed modestly – except for a pair of high heels. They’re noticed eventually, once she’s been admitted, but nobody seems to realise they’re at odds with the person she purports to be.
There’s no doubt that director Florian Gallenberger regards the Colonia as a latter day concentration camp. The parallels become increasingly obvious, especially once the underground torture rooms have been discovered. When the President himself pays a visit, he sees is an idealised community with people in their best clothes, a reminder of the showcase concentration camps. The fact that the community is run by a German could almost be taken as heavy handed, if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s true. Paul Schafer, known to everybody as Pious (Michael Nyqvist), was alleged to have links with the Nazis during World War II. Within his religious cult, he rules with a rod of iron, but there’s also something unpleasantly creepy about him as well. So the cult is also an allegory for Chile itself. It’s not rocket science.
There are somethings that the film does quite well, and it scores as a thriller, slowly building up the tension in the first half and then racing towards its crescendo as your knuckles grow paler. Every time it looks like the couple has reached safety, or they’re dealing with somebody they can trust, an obstacle is put in their way and their freedom threatened all over again. It’s simple but effective. And you’ve involved enough to want them to escape, even if Bruhl and Watson’s characters aren’t especially well drawn. It goes without saying that you definitely want to see Pious get his come-uppance.
The real story of the Colonia Dignidad is chilling. Only five people ever escaped and there was an international outcry when the truth about it was revealed. But nothing changed at all in Chile. And while the film will be an eye-opener, it has none of the anger or indignation that should accompany a real life tale of brutality and fear. Nor does the audience.
The Colony is released in cinemas and on demand on Friday, 1st July and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 30 June.