A Promise to the Dead




"A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman" starts with a reminder that the terrorist attacks of 2001 were not the first time that the date of Sept. 11 was burned into a nation's collective memory. On that day in 1973, military planes belonging to Gen. Augusto Pinochet launched an attack that toppled the democratically elected regime of Salvador Allende in Santiago, Chile. Ariel Dorfman -- the novelist, essayist, and playwright best known for his play "Death and the Maiden," which was made into a 1994 film by Roman Polanski -- was living in Chile at the time, working for the Allende government. Fearing for his life after the military coup, he went into hiding and eventually fled the country. This documentary directed by Peter Raymont marks Dorfman's attempt to honor his friends and compatriots who were murdered by Pinochet's troops. But as the subtitle suggests, it is also a very personal reminiscence by Dorfman, who has spent much of his life uprooted and on the run.

Dorfman was born in Argentina in 1942, but his family left the country a few years later and moved to the U.S. During the McCarthy era, his father's leftist sympathies forced them to move to Chile, where Ariel grew up and first established himself as a writer. After the overthrow of Allende, he again was forced into exile, and though he has a home in Santiago, his base is Raleigh, N.C., and he teaches at Duke University.

The disappointment of the film is its failure to give us a deeper understanding of the trauma of exile. Dorfman's oldest son, Rodrigo -- who serves here as an associate producer -- appears in the film, but none of his other family members offers any perspective on the painful experience of dislocation. In fact, the film as a whole is rather short on other faces and voices besides Dorfman's. Because of its narrow focus and muted emotional impact, it seems unlikely to achieve much boxoffice success.

The film does a more effective job capturing the political turmoil in Chile and the tragic plight of "the disappeared." Michele Hozer's editing is a major strength of the film, frequently intercutting scenes of Dorfman in present-day Santiago with newsreel footage shot in the exact same places during the uprisings of the early 1970s. Even this aspect of the film, however, could use a few more voices to underscore the tragic upheavals in much of Latin America during recent decades. No doubt Raymont made a deliberate choice to keep the focus on Dorfman, but a somewhat wider canvas would have made his personal odyssey more poignant.

The film treats Dorfman almost reverentially, and no doubt he deserves praise. But the best biographical films, whether dramas or documentaries, present a more rounded portrait of their protagonists. Despite Dorfman's articulate presence, the film seems frustratingly incomplete.

White Pine Pictures
Director-producer: Peter Raymont
Director of photography: Mark Ellam
Music: Mark Korven
Associate producer: Rodrigo Dorfman
Editor: Michele Hozer
Running time -- 91 minutes
No MPAA rating