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Story of Film - November 2013
Remind Me

The Battle of Chile, Part 2

Chilean filmmaker and political activist Patricio Guzmán returned to his homeland after studying in Europe soon after Salvador Allende became Chile's first Marxist president in 1970 and started transforming the country into a socialist state. Along with several like-minded colleagues, Guzmán began documenting the story of Allende's presidency, filming in the streets, at political meetings, in factories and universities, as events unfolded dramatically. Part One of The Battle of Chile (1975) shows the growing opposition to Allende's efforts among conservative politicians, factory owners, and Catholic university students. In Part Two, subtitled "The Coup d'Etat," that opposition escalates and coalesces, and miscalculations by Allende seal his fate. The present-tense storytelling gives the films, especially Part Two, an urgency and immediacy that is more compelling than the doctrinaire rhetoric of the narration.

Part Two begins with the same moment that ended Part One -- a single military regiment attempting to attack the presidential palace in June of 1973. The coup is unsuccessful, but 22 people are killed, including a cameraman shooting the attack. After the failed coup, Allende does not want to take any action that would threaten the legitimacy of his government. He rejects a demand by his supporters that he shut down the parliament, although he agrees to put some factories under state control. He also asks parliament to grant him emergency powers, including control over the military. The motion fails to pass. There are disagreements among different factions on the left, while center and right-wing politicians are uniting in opposition to Allende's government.

Allende believed he had the support of the military, and that was his fatal mistake, as The Battle of Chile vividly shows. The president's naval aide, Captain Arturo Araya, his main link to the military, is assassinated, probably to keep Allende from finding out what the military was planning. By then, military leaders were already conspiring with the C.I.A. to overthrow Allende. In a Shakespearean scene at Araya's funeral, the camera moves slowly through a solemn crowd of officers from all branches of the military (including Army Chief of Staff General Augusto Pinochet) talking quietly among themselves, and it's easy to imagine them, like the Roman senators in Julius Caesar, plotting to overthrow the leader they oppose. It's scenes like that one that led New Yorker critic Pauline Kael to call The Battle of Chile "Terrifyingly well done," and to compare it to the work of the Italian neorealist filmmakers. "Guzmán and his associates have taken a relentlessly non-aesthetic approach, yet with their artistic sensibilities and superb taste, The Battle of Chile is an elegy in spite of them," she wrote.

From this point, the pace of the film quickens. A truckers' strike, planned by the right and apparently financed by the CIA, paralyzes food distribution. Talks between Allende and the center right in Parliament are deadlocked, and the president's opponents set impossible conditions to resume them: he must renounce his presidential powers, stop his efforts to nationalize industry, and put military leaders in his cabinet and share power with them. Allende refuses. On the anniversary of his election, there's a huge demonstration by his supporters. Heartened by the show of solidarity, Allende calls for an election to solve the crisis. But it's too late. The military moves in and demands Allende's resignation. In a final radio address to the nation, Allende defiantly refuses to give up, saying "Long live Chile, long live the people, long live the workers." The military bombs the presidential palace, and General Pinochet announces that a military junta is in charge and Allende is dead. According to The Battle of Chile, and most sources including the Allende family, Allende committed suicide as his enemies closed in by shooting himself with a weapon given to him by Fidel Castro. Family members and witnesses corroborate that, but some loyalists still believe he was assassinated.

Filmmaker Patricio Guzmán was arrested, but was finally released and fled the country. Many others were not so fortunate. A dedication at the beginning of Part Two of The Battle of Chile reads "in memory of Jorge Müller Silva," the film's main cinematographer. He was one of the thousands of "desaparecidos" -- the disappeared ones - who vanished after the coup and are presumed dead, but whose bodies have never been found.

Through various means (and again with the help of French filmmaker Chris Marker, who had supplied the film stock for The Battle of Chile), Guzmán and his associates smuggled out the film they had shot. It took several years to edit the films, including a Part Three, subtitled "The Power of the People," which was released in 1978, and deals with the mobilization of workers and peasants into thousands of local groups to distribute food, run factories and farms, and organize social services during the Allende government.

All three films were shown at festivals around the world, to universal acclaim. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times called it "A remarkable political documentary...Opinionated but not shrill." To Molly Haskell of New York magazine, it was "A spellbinding document." And Judy Stone of the San Francisco Chronicle praised it as "A landmark in the presentation of living history on film."

Guzmán, who did not return to Chile until 1997, has continued to explore his homeland's most traumatic period in several other films, even into the 21st century: The Pinochet Case (2001), about the effort to bring the former dictator to justice; Salvador Allende (2004), a biography of the late president; and Nostalgia for the Light (2010), a personal meditation on astronomy, archaeology and loss.

Director: Patricio Guzmán
Producer: Chris Marker
Screenplay: Patricio Guzmán
Cinematography: Jorge Müller Silva
Sound: Bernardo Menz
Editor: Pedro Chaskel
88 minutes

by Margarita Landazuri