By Michael Sandlin.

In this, the third and final entry of Chilean exile filmmaker Patricio Guzman’s documentary trilogy poetically examining his native country, he uses the famous Cordillera mountains as his geographical and philosophical centerpiece. From the initial lavish overhead shots of this majestic mountain range we eventually get to a wide-ranging exploration of Chile’s tortured late-20th-century social history. Although the film at first seems to drift aimlessly over its mountainous topic like a segment from your average National Geographic feature, as The Cordillera of Dreams gains some narrative momentum and some historical context, we begin to see how this sublime geographical stretch connects to its people and similarly changes with the times, always presiding sublimely over Chile’s capital, Santiago, as a natural sentry-like presence: yet the Cordillera has not been immune to the political convulsions the country has experienced over the decades and never quite recovered from.

Guzman interviews a few select subjects, all of whom are part of the Santiago intelligentsia in some way, and all have their pet theories on how Chile’s dictatorial past has shaped its future. Guzman’s most fascinating subject is Pablo Calas, an archival filmmaker who has been covering civil unrest in Santiago since the 1970s. Calas’s vast store of moving images of his country’s dark past is his way of making sure Chile’s history cannot be totally erased by his somewhat amnesia-ridden generation. As close as Calas gets to the action, you wonder how he wasn’t arrested and “disappeared” long ago. His grainy, immersive footage offers a shocking glimpse into an era rife with protests, police beatings, water cannonades, and placard-waving protestors being wrangled by military police into Pinochet’s paddy wagons. Ghostly images of the empty National Stadium in Santiago—once the home of the Chilean national soccer team (ranked 3rd in the world before the Pinochet-led coup)—are juxtaposed with Guzman’s poetic voice-over. He mournfully tells the tale of how the stadium went from a symbol of national pride and victory to one of shame after Pinochet converted it into a huge open-air prison for political dissidents.

But its only really when ideas of ownership (who owns Chile?) are being bandied about that Guzman’s film truly comes into its own. Guzman makes some truly fascinating connections between the Cordillera and the Chilean polity. As we learn from Calas and the other talking heads in the film, Chile is a country living a lie. During dictatorial times, Pinochet’s economists foisted the Milton Freidman Chicago school of economics on a naturally socialist state, and in effect turned everyone against each other. It was the American “every man for himself” ethos forced on people whose spirit was essentially communal, not individualist. The big revelation is that not even the mighty Cordillera can escape this noxious hyper-neoliberal  atmosphere: as it turns out, 80 percent of Chile’s famous mountain range isn’t even owned by Chileans but a rather murky lot of foreign investors.

Although most of the film’s tone is one of skepticism and frustration, toward the end we get a clearer glimpse of Chile’s younger generation and their hopes for the future. And here’s where the film finally strikes something like an optimistic tone. While Guzman and Calas are fighting their own generation’s penchant for forgetting, thanks to their cinematic guerilla tactics, now a whole new up-and-coming generation is being shaken awake to their own troubled past.

Michael Sandlin‘s work has appeared in Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, Film Quarterly, Bookforum, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the cinema trade publication Video Librarian.

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