Dir / scr: MatÃas Rojas Valencia. Chile / France / Germany / Argentina / Colombia. 2021. 95 minutes
The characters of the second feature film by Chilean director MatÃas Rojas Valencia are sorely lacking in the dignity of which his title speaks. A study of life in an infamous religious community in 1970s Chile, seen through the eyes of a twelve-year-old boy as he negotiates his relationship with the psychopath who runs it, A place called dignity treats its complex themes with the skill and care due to a project that continues to shame Chile as a national disgrace. Provocative and unsettling, richly atmospheric but strangely devoid of drama, it’s a worthy addition to the growing list of Chilean films seeking to address the country’s troubled past.
Rojas Valencia’s approach is to maintain a tedious distance from the action, so drama is lacking
Colonia de Dignidad was founded by German Paul ShÃ¤fer between 1961 and 2005. It has since become synonymous with evil – a place associated with brainwashing, arms smuggling, torture and the murder of political dissidents. and child abuse. It has been the subject of a few beautiful documentaries (and La Rojas Valencia is working on another), as well as feature films including The Lost by Florian Gallenberger The colony (2015) and the sublime stop-motion horror film by Cristobal LeÃ³n & JoaquÃn CociÃ±a, 2018’s The house of the wolf.
After a rather laborious settlement, Pablo (Salvador Insunza), whose single mother Cecilia (Gianina Frutero) struggles to raise him, arrives at the colony as the first Chilean resident. At first, âUncle Paulâ (Wim Wenders veteran Hanns Zischler) is the father Pablo doesn’t have, offering him warmth and care and encouraging him to join the choir. But a darker side of the colony is quickly evident, in the clearly indoctrinated and traumatized figure of Rudolph (Noa Westermeyer) and the ailing nurse Gisela (Amalia Kassai), desperate to have a child but forbidden to do so since SchÃ¤fer believes that sex should be reserved for animals.
SchÃ¤fer runs things with an iron fist: disobedience is punished by public humiliation, as several toe curling scenes reveal, while the colony is an echo of East Germany and, possibly be of now, with the quantity of its surveillance cameras. Pablo, free-spirited and rebellious, will eventually hate his new home and seek to escape. Fortunately, not leaning towards sensationalism in his treatment of such potentially sordid material, Rojas Valencia is moving almost too far in the other direction. The pace is slow and steady, and the camera often still and lingers as Pablo watches, through the windows and behind the curtains, in the undifferentiated way of young people.
In a context where the suppression of the individual is the main thing, it is difficult to create a rounded character. Rojas Valencia’s approach is to maintain a tedious distance from the action, so that the drama and psychological effects of the events on Pablo are lacking. For example, and perhaps inevitably, the relationship between Pablo and Rudolph seems uncertain. What we get instead are powerful atmospheres throughout, as the boy’s inner life is conveyed through the film’s pervasive sense of worry.
Insunza has some wonderfully expressive traits, but her role is therefore limited by the approach to the storyline. Zischler, as the film’s only complex character, has much more to work with the physically imposing monomaniac SchÃ¤fer; the kind of guy who sniffs people’s armpits and then announces he can smell the devil. As a charismatic cult leader, he is perfectly credible.
There are genuinely terrifying scenes in A place called dignity, which is ultimately the portrait of a community distorted in everything that a community should not be. Raised in the colony, Gisela has no idea how babies are made; she learns it from an encyclopedia, then mates with Johannes (David Gaete) at the stake in a superbly directed and heartbreaking spoof of young love. Another is a Christmas celebration in which a monster (perhaps a shade too technically sophisticated) walks in to scare all the kids; the scene ends with SchÃ¤fer gleefully announcing to the gathered revelers that Santa is dead.
Like many 20th-century German psychopaths, SchÃ¤fer loves music, and the sweet sounds of the boy’s choir often ironically accompany the horrible things happening onscreen. Handel Saraband, as generously presented in Barry lyndon, is presented even more generously here, and as powerful as it is, it goes beyond its welcome. Laura Caligiuri’s artistic direction makes the colony a pale, tidy and uncluttered space, largely stripped of any human mess: it is the perfect reflection, in other words, of the dangerous spirit of its founder.
Production companies: Quijote Films, Mandra Films, Kinkerfilm, Autocroma, SÃ©ptima Films
International sales: New Europe Film Sales [email protected]
Producers: Giancarlo Nasi, Denis Vaslin, Pierre Perrot, Linus Gunther, Sophia Ayissi Nsegue, Titus Kreyenberg, Ivan Granovsky, Luciana Calcagno, Jorge Botero
Screenplay: MatÃas Rojas Valencia
Artistic direction: Laura Caligiuri
Editing: Andrea Chignoli, MatÃas Rojas Valencia
Photography: BenjamÃn Echazarreta
Music: Eryk Abecassis
Main actors: Salvador Insunza, Hanns Zischler, Amalia Kassai, Noa Westermeyer, Tato Dubo, David Gaete, Gianina Frutero