In 1973, Augusto Pinochet seized power in Chile and demoted the previous civilian rule to replace it with a military dictatorship. Colonia Dignidad, commanded by Paul Schäfer and other allies of Pinochet, served as a prison for political detainees under his regime, despite the bastille being concealed by the veneer of a farming commune.
With a historical premise as intriguing as this, it’s unfortunate how much Colonia’s (also known as The Colony) filmic portrayal falters more than it succeeds. Florian Gallenberger’s cinematic disquisition on Colonia Dignidad and the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional showcased a valuable cast, but lacked the authority required to pay homage to the real story.
Alongside a few good performances are moments of undeniable pictographic interest. Still, the sporadic visual interest fails to conceal a banal portrayal beneath it. What Colonia ends up becoming is a vanilla elucidation on an undeniably heartbreaking time in history.
A Promising Story
Colonia begins as lovers, Daniel (Daniel Brühl) and Lena (Emma Watson), are reunited in Chile amidst the aforementioned sociopolitical movement. Soon after the film establishes the romance they share, a coup breaks out, where they are captured and taken hostage among countless others.
In a lineup, Daniel is quickly identified as an activist in the movement behind Allande, the opposing party against the dictatorship. He is then forcibly taken to Colonia Dignidad, where those who are also identified as a threat to the regime are held as prisoner. Now separated, Lena is determined to find Daniel and rescue him from his imprisonment by joining the cult that now holds him captive.
A woman setting out to rescue a man from peril is a rare and sincerely appreciated cinematic take on the more prevalent hero-saves-heroine storybook subplot. This reversal of gender roles alone sparks intrigue and promises to at least be different, and in that way, it is. However, its distinctiveness stops there.
What could have been a spellbinding love story quickly becomes disenchanted by cliché writing, acting, and editing choices. While the play on the heroine/hero narrative was appreciated, Colonia manufactures a stock photo-portrayal of a love story wrapped in a dark history.
Emma Watson’s Cool-Factor
Despite the scarcity of distinguishing characteristics, a film with Emma Watson is automatically defaulted to make it at least slightly interesting. She exudes a near tangible intelligence that draws you in and gives reason to keep watching. Perhaps you feel as committed to her work as the man who stated that he could, “…watch Emma Watson peel potatoes for 7 hours.” She does, in fact, peel many potatoes in Colonia, so if you share his sentiments, this may be the film for you.
She paints a sympathetic portrait of her character, Lena, though I couldn’t help but notice the familiarity in her craft as she presents a carbon copy of many of her other post-Potter roles. As she emotes lovingly soft gazes and frustratingly harsh stares at people, places, and vacant fields in Colonia, I never got past the point of, “Emma Watson is cool and I should probably keep watching because of it.” Under the right direction, she will thrive, but in the case of Colonia, she’s held captive by the formulaic processes involved in its creation.
Supporting alongside Watson are Daniel Brühl and Michael Nyqvist; both of whom I sincerely admire in their previous work. Nyqvist, especially, has interested me since I first saw him in his remarkable portrayal of Mikael Bloomkvist in A Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009). Much like Watson, I am likely to at least consider watching a film in which he is cast.
So, here we are with a promising group of actors and a story needing to be told, yet the film we are presented with falls short. Here is why:
Where It Goes Wrong
Paul Schäfer – the real-life leader of Colonia Dignidad played by Nyqvist – had a past that was not mentioned in the film. He joined the Hitler Youth at a young age, and soon after setting up a Christian faith-based orphanage in Germany, he was charged with sexually abusing the children under his care.
He escaped to Chile where he was granted permission by the government to found the commune that would later become Colonia Dignidad, where he continued to subject abuse on dozens of children and adults under his authority. I felt that the horrifying truth about this real-life monster needed to be a part of the film, because without it history is effectively erased for those whose only reference is this film.
In addition, the writing in this Colonia falls prey to lines that make the film seem campy. For example, the romance between the two characters (the very essence of what motivates the Lena) worked at times, but was otherwise watered down by some undeniably cringe-worthy lines.
Ultimately, I didn’t learn much from Colonia and – in the process of writing this review – pulled more information from the short Wikipedia page than from the film. With a stifled screenplay and omissions from history, Gallenberger struggled to capture the anxieties and claustrophobic nature of living with a maniacal man.
Behind Colonia is a striking true story about activism and power – about justice and loss. It is a story whose familial and political reality has left generations with wounds that echo in direct relation to the events that transpired. And yet, instead of dynamism, Colonia presents a generic and watered-down version of the real story.
1973 undoubtably triggers painful memories and emotions embedded in the psyche of a nation that reverberate though generations of Chilean people. What Colonia attempts to do is admirable, though it unfortunately comes up transparently empty.
Do you think how a film depicts history has an affect on how people understand the subject at hand?
Colonia is streaming now on Netflix.
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