Director: Manuela Martelli
Stars: Aline Küppenheim, Hugo Medina, Nicolás Sepúlveda
Mixing paint to match the hues of a bloody sunset, bourgeoise housewife and inferred widow Carmen (Aline Küppenheim) is disturbed by the sound of commotion in the thoroughfare. There are no signs of anything untoward outside of the store, but on arriving back at her car she sees a solitary discarded shoe. Another person disappeared…
Chilean actor/director Manuela Martelli’s astonishing, brooding feature debut chisels into a similar rich vein of political unrest as that of Andreas Fontana’s comparable Azor from just a year or two ago. While Fontana’s film unspooled dark uncertainties in neighbouring Argentina, Martelli looks back at the early days of the Pinochet regime in her native Chile, conjuring a paranoiac atmosphere with similar notes of Graeme Greene.
A former medical practitioner, Carmen is a middle-aged, middle-class woman being kept busy overseeing renovations to her beachfront home (hence the paint). Local minister Padre Sánchez (Hugo Medina) further occupies her time when he asks her to covertly administer to a young man in his care who has a gunshot wound in his thigh. The man, Elías (Nicolás Sepúlveda), is clearly an activist; a resistance fighter against the new regime. Carmen’s involvement in his convalescence must be kept hush-hush at all costs, but her exposure to him kindles her own activism. Gradually, Carmen is inducted into a world of covert meetings and clandestine phone calls, with the genuine threat of reprisal a constant pressure.
So much of the threat in 1976 is unseen or unspoken. Indeed, even acknowledging the encroaching political oppression is a pointed faux pas at the family dinner table. One of these scenes sees Carmen gifted a television – a seeming nod to Douglas Sirk’s influential melodrama All That Heaven Allows – but 1976 favours an entirely different sensibility. In keeping with it’s time period, Martelli’s film increasingly feels tonally reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation or the thrillers of Alan J. Pakula.
Martelli shows skill at creating and sustaining a sense of ephemeral dread. This is done expertly through blocking (hemming Carmen in, placing her in corners or between people) and via judicious framing (what’s in focus; what isn’t). But her film is also something of a fetishistic delight akin to the retro preoccupations of Peter Strickland. Aesthetics are hugely important to her, and she codifies objects of the time period. The tomato red of a landline telephone. The sickly yellows of cars, the same lurid shade that typified popular ’70s film credits. This preoccupation is mirrored within the film; in Carmen’s exacting decisions over paint hues at the beginning, complimented at the film’s end by her similarly meticulous mixing of food colouring.
As important as these visual elements are, they are surrounded by one of the most gorgeous scores of the year. María Portugal blankets 1976 in tense electronic pulses and forlorn horns prone to agitated squeals. Her work provides considerable emphasis to Martelli’s swirl of fear and paranoia.
As things progress, Carmen starts to reject her bourgeoise lifestyle. While on a boating trip with friends and relatives she becomes sick, but is it the rock of the waves or the party line rhetoric of her peers making her ill? 1976 charts a slow radicalisation, if you will. Or, more honestly, an awakening. This is a moody gem of delectable scale; part of an increasingly fine body of work coming out of Chile that continues to reckon with the lasting wounds of the Pinochet dictatorship. Chiefly we’ve seen such works coming from the country’s most well-known auteur Pablo Larraín, but it is heartening to see other voices join the chorus, and Martelli shows here that she is every bit her countryman’s equal.
The face of it all is Küppenheim, by turns steely and unreadable (as Carmen needs to me) or a knitted brow of worry that communicates to us in the audience the perilousness of her misadventures. Carmen is scared by her new line as a covert freedom fighter, but perhaps reenergised by it too. It’s to Martelli’s credit that she doesn’t overtly sexualise the connection between Carmen and Elías (though there’s a degree of tension there, to be sure), but rather their relationship is one of political and philosophical provocation.
As everywhere, of course, it is all between the lines. Little is spoken overtly. Even in safe spaces who knows who might be listening. So often in 1976 communication is reconfigured, inferred, accentuated by silences or physical absences. An empty shoe. A car on a beach. An open door. Martelli’s film is about discovering a disquieting vanishing act happening all around you, and finding ways to hold on. Come the end, it addresses the emotional weight of such losses; a stark human response to deafening silence.
This is one of the year’s best.