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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Old Revolutionaries Never Just Fade Away
by Donald Levit

During her New York Film Festival Q&A appearance, filmmaker Carmen Castillo Echeverria confirmed that the four years gone into making Calle Santa Fe will  not end with her documentary. Instead, the movie is not an exorcism but only a beginning of what, unfortunately but understandably, has become a mission, or obsession. Hoping for some eventual independent distributor, she expects to take the feature personally from festival to festival worldwide and, in Chile, “province to province, university to university, neighborhoods, unions, communities, to learn from what a very diverse public says to me on seeing it.”

The 163 minutes is neither a biography of Miguel Enríquez nor a history of the conservative spaghetti-thin country nor a reflection on General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte -- named, she recalls, but one time -- but her “personal story touching on collective stories” including that of “the Allende [who is] our Allende, which no one has told up to now.” A film with stated purpose, its goal is to wean the rising generation from her era’s mistake of grand generalizations about a pie-in-the-sky future; instead, instancing Spinoza, though a minority today’s youth should look to affect today, even if only by little bits, in the poverty of the “invisible Chile [and] a disastrous world.”

Herself a heroine of resistance, a sojourner in Europe deemed too unstable for Operation Return to smuggle her back to combat the dictatorship of seventeen official years, Castillo is the widow of Enríquez, the young doctor and leader of MIR, the upper-middle-class student Movement of the Revolutionary Left that, alongside such as the urban Revolutionary Workers Front, was instrumental in the razor-thin thirty-six-percent 1970 presidential victory of Salvador Allende and Communist-Socialist-radical coalition People’s Unity.

Heavy with deteriorated footage of the years following the September 11, 1973, rightwing coup, of activist meetings and protest marches in the teeth of military control of streets, and the helicopter-borne Caravan of Death and brutal internal intelligence DINA, as well as later campfire gatherings of Villa Grimaldi torture survivors or now-ageing militants and candle vigils at the detention center that was the national soccer stadium, the many elements are threaded together by the figure of Castillo, present as interviewer, listener or companion.

Specifically, she returns to number 725 Santa Fe Street, an indistinguishable low masonry dwelling in a neither poor nor rich residential barrio. Saturday, October 5, 1974, however, it was the safe house of Miguel and pregnant Carmen, their daughters (one his from before, one hers) only fifteen days before having been motorscootered by a priest to refuge inside the Italian consulate. Prominent in the reeling underground resistance, the couple were surprised by soldiers and secret police, Miguel shielded her body, apparently escaped but then went back and was killed, while a neighbor got wounded Carmen to a hospital.

Exiled by the junta, she would devote her years of wandering, finally settling in Paris, to the cause but admits to becoming an empty shell of a human being. She summons courage to return, not only to her country but, with friend Gladys Díaz, to that very house. Her plan to purchase the building to set up a memorial, she uses the opportunity to sound out neighbors and friends to fill in blanks about the events of that day, talks with former and current activists or their surviving parents, and, in long filmed family conversations, clarifies relationships with her brothers and elderly father and mother.

Chilean exile in Venezuela now long in California, of her own return to My Invented Country Isabel Allende wrote that “I didn’t fit in there either, because I’d been away too long. Being a foreigner, as I have been almost forever, . . . has some advantages for someone who earns her living by observing.” Castillo, too, does not “fit in,” for that past so dominates her present that she is like the interviewed militant who, despite a companion and a son, found life so empty that suicide beckoned when MIR dissolved in 1989. Other militants speak of having sacrificed offspring in serving the cause, and their daughters—including the director’s Carmila, sent to Havana at six, in 1971—voice their resentment at such abandonment.

Calle Santa Fe exhibits the defects of what Henry James decried as the artist’s personality or “mood” as unifying principle. In effect, with no outside gauge as to what belongs aside from its touching on its maker, the film loses a center, goes in too many directions at too great length. A more incisive cinematic consideration was Pinochet’s Children, which premièred at the same Lincoln Center theater in 2003, like Castillo’s in association with the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. “Dedicated to the generation of our parents, to our own and to my son,” that also Chilean expatriate Paula Rodríguez’ non-fiction finds objective distance in following three student activists of 1970s Santiago who revisit that past three decades afterwards, making peace with the spirits of their fathers and so moving on to continuity and the future, that is, a beginning, middle and end.

(Released by Ad Vitam; not rated by MPAA.)

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