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Review: Colonia (2016)

Colonia (2016)

Directed by: Florian Gallenberger

Premise: Based on a true story. A European couple gets caught up in the Chilean coup of 1973 that installed Augusto Pinochet as head of state. When the boyfriend is imprisoned, his girlfriend joins the Colonia Dignidad, a religious compound that doubled as a prison camp.

What Works: Colonia is a frequently gripping story of survival in which people must adapt to repressive surroundings in order to survive. The film begins as a story of the 1973 Chilean coup and the first third of the picture recalls Costa-Gavras’ Missing and Oliver Stone’s Salvador. The film dramatizes the struggle between democratic and totalitarian forces and places two young lovers within that context. Emma Watson plays a flight attendant who arrives in Chile and visits her boyfriend during a furlough between flights. Daniel Bruhl is cast as the boyfriend, a German who has moved to Chile to participate in the democratic movement. Colonia does a proficient job establishing their relationship. Watson and Bruhl are a likable couple and we have a sense of their love but also the equity of their relationship. When the coup begins, Chilean military forces round up dissenters. Watson and Bruhl’s characters are captured and sent to an internment camp with the boyfriend eventually sent to an interrogation center that is secretly appended onto the Colonia Dignidad, an isolated religious community. In an effort to save her boyfriend, Watson’s character joins the religious sect. At this point, Colonia becomes a different kind of movie, one  reminiscent of Ti West’s The Sacrament and Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. The Colonia Dignidad, which was an actual Christian sect operating in Chile at this time, was a totalitarian, abusive, and misogynistic religious community that was overseen by Paul Schafer, a former Nazi who fled to Latin America after World War II. Schafer is played by Michael Nyqvist who is frightening in his megalomania. The moviemakers pull few punches in the portrayal of life at the Colonia Dignidad, especially in the abuse of the female members, and the sets and sequences within the colony are composed in a way that recall images of war camp dramas like The Great Escape and Schindler’s List. The two lead characters struggle to survive inside of this repressive community and the early sequences of their relationship pay off as they go out on a limb to save each other. The last third of the movie, in which the lovers make their escape, is exciting and will keep viewers on the edge of their seats.

What Doesn’t: The filmmakers of Colonia make some problematic choices under the auspices of dramatic license. The central couple of Colonia is a fictitious invention. That in itself is fine and a normal part of historical storytelling. But Colonia is about an important episode in the history of Chile. Emma Watson and Daniel Bruhl’s characters are supposedly German (even though neither of them speak with a German accent) and the movie pushes the Chilean people into the background of their own history. There are virtually no actors or characters of Chilean or Latin American heritage in Colonia at least not in any significant roles. The movie also takes Daniel Bruhl’s character in an odd direction. During his interrogation, Bruhl’s character is tortured with electric shocks to his temples. In an effort to dupe his captors, the prisoner fakes brain damage that has made him mentally incompetent. Bruhl does this well enough to avoid Simple Jack territory but this aspect of the story strains the credibility of the movie. Colonia also borrows significantly from Argo, especially the ending, which Ben Affleck’s 2012 film had also fabricated for dramatic purposes. But where Argo’s race to the runway of was done in a way that was credible, the same scene in Colonia doesn’t make a lot of sense.

DVD extras: Featurettes.

Bottom Line: Colonia is a flawed movie but it is successful as a thriller. The film is led by a pair of very good and likable actors and the picture is frightening and exciting in its story of escape from physical and psychological domination.

Episode: #622 (November 20, 2016)