1976 review – nerve-jangling noir unpicks middle-class guilt of Pinochet era

A wealthy woman is drawn into Chile’s anti-Pinochet resistance in this thrilling feature debut from actor turned director Manuela Martelli

An outstanding performance from Aline Küppenheim is the driving force in this engrossing suspense drama-thriller about an elegant and prosperous woman being drawn into Chile’s anti-Pinochet resistance in 1976. It is a terrific feature debut from performer turned director Manuela Martelli, who herself acted opposite Küppenheim in the film Machuca, which was set in Chile in 1973, the time of the Allende overthrow. But this film has more bite.

Küppenheim plays Carmen, the stylish wife of a Santiago hospital doctor, currently working on the redecoration of the family’s holiday home by the sea, where she and her family mingle with reactionary friends of her husband’s from the local yacht club. Slightly imperiously, she lectures the contractor in his workshop on the exact shade of red paint she needs and as she does so, there is a terrified shout outside in the street and a squeal of tyres as someone is taken away by the secret police; everyone (including Carmen) looks away and goes into the woozy state of shock and denial that was commonplace among so many middle-class Chileans. (The enigmatic resemblance of the red paint to blood is echoed later when Carmen is using red food colouring in her kitchen.)

At the holiday home, Carmen has befriended local priest Father Sánchez (Hugo Medina), who is aware of the Red Cross training Carmen had as a young woman as a consolation for not being allowed to study medicine. He discreetly asks if she wouldn’t mind coming to tend to a young guest of his called Elías (Nicolás Sepúlveda), who has a bullet wound in his leg. Carmen herself, disgusted by the government and complicity among those of her own class, and plagued with residual guilt (of which insomnia is a symptom), agrees to help – and something that had been hiding in plain sight is now revealed to her: state terror.

This film is part of that wave of Chilean cinema from film-makers such as Pablo Larraín, Patricio Guzmán and Sebastián Lelio who are trying to make sense of the Pinochet era – and I wonder if Martelli might have been inspired by the movie memoir Nona: If They Soak Me, I’ll Burn Them by Chilean artist Camila José Donoso, about her grandmother. 1976 is made with thrilling assurance, and the tension and Carmen’s spiritual crisis are superbly conveyed, with a nerve-jangling score by María Portugal. It’s a great example of Chilean antifascist noir.

• 1976 is released on 24 March in UK cinemas.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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