Patricio Guzmán's "The Pinochet Case."

Chris Brady cdbrady at
Wed Sep 11 02:52:45 MDT 2002

September 11, 2002,
New York Times.

Morally Accountable for the 'Disappearances' and the Atrocities


You can feel the wheels of justice relentlessly grinding toward a day of
judgment in Patricio Guzmán's eloquent, meticulously structured
documentary film "The Pinochet Case." A gripping step-by-step account of
the case mounted by a Spanish judge against the former Chilean military
dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet for human rights abuses, the movie
re-examines one of the most painful episodes of recent Latin American
history and its aftermath. Sober political and legal analysis alternates
with grim first-hand accounts of torture and murder in a film that has
the structure of a choral symphony that swells to a bittersweet finale.

"The Pinochet Case" opens with scenes of ordinary Chileans scouring the
desert for the remains of family members who were tortured and killed
decades earlier. It concludes with scenes of the humbled former dictator
(now 86) returning to Chile after a prolonged detention in England while
the House of Lords debated whether he should be extradited to Spain to
face trial for his crimes. In a landmark decision, which has had
international reverberations, it concluded he was not immune from

The bringing to moral account of the general was the coordinated effort
of judges, lawyers, prosecutors, human rights organizations and victims
from 15 countries. Even though we know the outcome, the seesawing of the
general's fate in the arguments of competing lawyers has the
stomach-knotting suspense of a legal thriller, while the testimony of
witnesses lends the film a resonant undertone of tragedy. Leading the
film's list of judicial heroes are the Spanish judge Baltazar Garzón,
and the prosecutor Carlos Castresana, who found the legal justification
for the general's extradition and courageously persisted in an uphill
campaign to bring him to justice.

"The Pinochet Case," which opens today at Film Forum in New York is
really the coda to Mr. Guzmán's monumental 1978 documentary, "The Battle
of Chile." That film told the story of the rise of Salvador Allende's
democratically elected socialist government and its fall on Sept. 11,
1973, in a military coup led by General Pinochet, who ruled Chile for
the next 17 years. In the range and depth of its social reach, "The
Battle of Chile" has been compared to "The Sorrow and the Pity," Marcel
Ophuls's investigation of French collaboration with the Nazis during
World War II.

After the coup, more than 3,000 political opponents were rounded up,
interrogated, tortured and murdered, and a million Chileans went into
exile. The official justification for the coup and the atrocities that
followed is proffered in the movie by Peter Schaad, a Swiss businessman
and close friend of the dictator, who visited him during his
confinement. He blithely insists that what happened was a small price to
pay to keep Chile from going Communist.

"The Pinochet Case" picks up the dictator's story in 1998, the year he
retired from politics and appointed himself "senator for life." While in
London on his annual shopping spree, the general developed serious back
pains and was hospitalized in a clinic. It was there that he was
arrested immediately after surgery. The next 503 days he spent under
house arrest at an estate outside London while the House of Lords
debated whether he should be extradited to Spain. One ally and friend
shown visiting the general during his detention and offering solace and
gratitude for his help in the Falkland Islands campaign is the former
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Although the House of Lords eventually divested him of the legal
immunity that has traditionally protected heads of state from
prosecution for crimes against humanity, the general was still allowed
to return to Chile for reasons of ill health. Although deemed too ill to
stand trial in Santiago, he was stripped of his immunity by the Chilean
supreme court, declared a criminal and kept under house arrest.

"The Pinochet Case" is a beautifully layered mosaic that is all the more
powerful for never raising its voice to a shout and for keeping the
tears to a minimum. We are told that the military regime took from the
Nazis the technique of "disappearing" people by arresting them, holding
them in detention in undisclosed locations for months and sometimes
years at a time, while denying their existence to desperate relatives
and friends. Most were ultimately disposed of through burial in
far-flung locations, and some were simply dropped into the ocean.

The film visits the notorious Villa Grimaldi, a nondescript complex of
buildings in Santiago that was the military regime's prime detention
center, and the camera lingers over a bed that was wired electrically
into a torture device.

The most powerful leitmotif is a visual Greek chorus of the general's
victims who are periodically shown in a group portrait casting a
collective gaze of calm accusation into the camera's eye. Over the
course of the film individual members of that group recall the personal
horrors they experienced in detention. Some are speaking publicly for
the very first time.

We hear of electrical tortures, rapes and of one strong man being beaten
to a pulp with chains, then lingering for three days in agony before
finally dying. As excruciating as their own physical agonies might have
been, most report that the worst part — the part that still brings them
nightmares — was being forced to watch the torture and murder of others
and hearing their screams. The goal of the torture recalls one woman,
was to make you feel subhuman.

"The Pinochet Case" suggests that justice, even the kind of mild justice
meted out to the general, can bring a certain satisfaction. And in
Chile, the case has profoundly altered the country's historical memory.
No longer will equestrian statues of General Pinochet proliferate. Nor
will he be hailed as liberator and have his name attached to public
institutions. The indelible final image is the unveiling of a statue of
Salvador Allende in the heart of Santiago.


Written and directed by Patricio Guzmán; in Spanish, with English
subtitles; director of photography, Jacques Bouquin; edited by Claudio
Martinez; produced by Yves Jeanneau; released by First Run/Icarus Films.

At the Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of Sixth Avenue, South
Village. Running time: 110 minutes. This film is not rated.

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