Movie Review: Colonia

Romantic thriller examines some of the abuses in Chile in the 1970s

Directed by Floran Gallenberger
With Emma Watson, Daniel Brühl, Michael Nyqvist, Richenda Carey, Vicky Krieps

The 1970s was a turbulent time in Latin America, with right-wing dictatorships in several counties taking a hard line against any left-wing opposition.

The makers of Colonia try to shed light on one chapter of the Pinochet regime in Chile: the cooperation between a secretive apocalyptic cult compound run by a fugitive former Nazi and the Chilean secret police. After Pinochet took over in a 1973 coup d'etat, part of the already existing and extensive cult compound was used as a torture and detention center.

Colonia fits this into a political thriller template, with a love story filled with narrow escapes set to the background of real events. Actor Daniel Brühl was in Prague to promote the film, and said he was interested in bringing the story to a wider audience. He has both German and Spanish heritage, and knew about the real cult compound called Colonia Dignidad.

When he heard a film was in the works, he was eager to get involved. Only a fraction of the abuses that went on there could be dramatized in a mainstream film, he added.

Brühl plays Daniel, a left-wing graphic designer who supported the Marxist government of Salvador Allende.

The day after Pinochet takes over the government in 1973, supporters of Allende are rounded up. Daniel, rather than escaping, tries to take pictures in the street. He is caught and winds up in a stadium with hundreds of others but gets singled out to be sent off in a white van.

The focus of the film, though, is on the character of his girlfriend Lena, played by Emma Watson. Lena is a stewardess for a German airline, and rather than simply return to Germany she decides to look for him. Daniel's remaining friends know where he was taken but are reluctant to try to help, and nongovernmental agencies claim there is nothing that can be done.

Lena sets off on her own to try to infiltrate the cult compound as a believer so she can help Daniel.

The bulk of the remainder of the film is a bit familiar — part Jonestown expose, and part prison camp escape epic with a bit of 1970s politics added.

Michael Nyqvist stands out as cult leader Paul Schäfer, a narcissist who keeps complete control over his several hundred followers. The camp itself, miles from any town, is completely self-contained with its own power supply and food production. Nyqvist presents Schäfer as a charismatic sadist who manages to convince his followers step by step into blind obedience.

Emma Watson has a difficult role as the cult volunteer on a personal secret mission. She is constantly under suspicion, as the cult gets few walk-ins. She brings conviction to the role, but one must question if anyone would willingly walk into such a cult compound, even for love. Accepting that she would do that is key to buying into the film.

Watson is well-known for her work in the Harry Potter films and is trying here to expand her range in a more serious and mature direction. She is credible as a stewardess and a reluctant adventurer, but one forgets she is supposed to German. When there is some mention of her German passport, many people might wonder why such an obviously British woman would need one. For commercial reasons, almost all of the dialogue is in English.

Daniel Brühl is a rising star. He has gone from small films like Good Bye, Lenin! to Hollywood-backed action films like Inglorious Basterds and Rush. His work in Colonia is a bit mixed. He has a strong start as the revolutionary photographer, but is a bit low-key as the cult prisoner, feigning mental disability for much of the time so he can blend into the background and plan his escape.

Overall as a thriller Colonia hits most of the right notes. Director Floran Gallenberger, who won an Oscar in 2001 for a short film, delivers several nail-biting scenes and convincingly re-creates the era.

As a political film, it could have gone a bit more into the events of the 1973 coup and the complicity of officials who covered up the cult's activity for decades. It also gives just a surface level look at the issue of the “disappeared,” those who vanished under Pinochet, and just scratches the surface of what happened in Colonia Dignidad, which surprisingly stayed in operation even after the Pinochet regime fell. But the full story can't really be covered in a two-hour thriller.

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