Plenty of major doc-makers have dedicated themselves to being portraitists of their homeland, but no one has done it as relentlessly and righteously as Patricio Guzmán, for 35 years Chile's defiant verité John the Baptist and activist laureate. Born in 1941 in Santiago and a comfortable middle-classer, Guzmán was enchanted with Allende socialism and then rocked by the 1973 Pinochet coup; his career since then has been committed to rendering onto film the exact dimensions of that disastrous takeover and its protracted, mysterious fallout. Beyond documenting Chile's post-'73 history, Guzmán's entire life project has been an active siege upon his homeland's apparently pathological need for amnesia; in film after film, he cries out alone in the wilderness of a national culture still unwilling to face the Pinochet era's cost in corpses and vanishings.
Guzmán's just released Nostalgia for the Light, but he's best known for The Battle of Chile (1975-79), arguably the most vital piece of actual history ever put on celluloid, if only because entire nations normally don't plunge into homicidal autocracy on film. In three parts and totaling over four hours, the film documents the ascension of Allende and the CIA-fueled coup that bloodied the streets (and, infamously, killed one of Guzmán's cameramen as he was shooting). A scalding lesson in orchestrated class disaster and power-mad malice, the under-seen Battle of Chile should be required viewing for high-schoolers everywhere.
Naturally, Guzmán went into exile post-coup, completing his epic in Spain before returning, a few years after Pinochet ceded presidential power in 1990, to show the film for the first time in Santiago--a trip recorded as Chile, the Obstinate Memory (1997). It's a rueful, desperate chronicle, as Guzmán picks at scabs no one wants opened, bringing Battle to schools, where children, having been taught a Bizarro version of 1973, get their ideas about their own country turned inside out. History does Guzmán's work for him next, with Pinochet's 1998 arrest in Great Britain on human-rights-violations charges. The Pinochet Case (2001) tracks the case across headlines to the despot's safe landing in his homeland (where he would die peaceably in 2006). But Guzmán never loses sight of the bones in the ground, the victims' testimony (one smiling woman offhandedly recounts how during a post-electroshock sexual assault she was "not in any kind of condition for a rape"), and the grand hypocrisy of world leaders (Margaret Thatcher offered her condolences to the house-arrested Pinochet: "Five months is a long time to be confined . . . in a house").
Guzmán has indulged outrage-free interests (1999's Robinson Crusoe Island and 2002's Madrid are both affectionate travelogues), but returns to haunting his compatriots' conscience with Salvador Allende (2004), giving the lost Socialist icon the biography no one in Chile will write and recounting the coup yet again in a kind of memorial for what could have been.
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The Battle of Chile is now available on DVD as a four-disc set which includes the documentary Chile,Obstinate Memory,- an interview with Patricio Guzmán and a booklet with texts and reviews, including Pauline Kael's review from The New Yorker.