‘Colonia’: TIFF Review

This questionable historical thriller is a dictatorship of poor filmmaking.

Emma Watson and Daniel Bruhl headline this suspense film set in 1970s Chile.

Transforming the real-life horrors of the Pinochet regime into a scenario that could have been cooked up by Eli Roth on one of his more sadistic, less humoristic days, Colonia marks a truly misguided attempt to fabricate a Hollywood-style thriller out of the darkest quarters of Latin American history. Inspired by the Colonia Dignidad religious and agricultural settlement, which the Chilean dictatorship used as a front to torture political prisoners throughout its long reign, this poorly plotted, shoddily made feature from globetrotting German director Florian Gallenberger (Shadows of Time) will mostly see small screen action after a world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.

Starring Emma Watson and Daniel Bruhl as two English-speaking German lovers who find themselves trapped in English-speaking Chile just as Augusto Pinochet launches his coup in 1974, the film offers neither actor the kind of material they merit  and gives Bruhl one of his more embarrassing tasks when his character is forced to play a “retard” in order to trick his Chilean captors, resulting in a performance that comes awfully close to the Simple Jack parody from Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder.

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There are other elements here that Stiller would approve of, including the evil ex-Nazi, Paul Schafer (Michael Nyqvist), who runs Colonia with an iron fist, but has the risible postures of a bad guy from The A-Team. And then there’s the evil nun (Katharina Muller-Elmau) who subjects young women at the camp to all sorts of psychological torments, dropping the c-word as much as possible and coming across as an improbable mashup of Nurse Ratched and the suicidal Sister from Psycho III.

Some of this could have been tolerable if the script  by Gallenberger and Torsten Wenzel weren’t so steeped in genre clichés from start to finish, beginning with an opening scene that has Lufthansa stewardess, Lena (Watson), and her graphic designer lover, Daniel (Bruhl), meeting by pure chance at a street rally in support of Salvador Allende.

After a few days spent frolicking beneath the sheets, and a repeated joke about Daniel wearing a kitchen apron with nothing underneath (though they left out the joke part), the sweethearts are eventually cornered by Pinochet’s troops in the middle of Santiago, with Daniel then sent to Colonia for a series of enhanced interrogations.

Lena soon decides to go up and save him, disguising herself as a believer so she can infiltrate the camp. What she finds inside is unpleasant indeed, though what’s even more intolerable is Gallenberger’s insistence on using banal horror film techniques, including a nonstop ‘80s-style score from Andre Dziezuk and Fernando Velazquez, to make it all seem scary  as if torture weren’t scary enough.

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Once we witness Colonia’s atrocities  which also entail the public humiliation and mass beating of young women  Colonia turns into a prison break film where Lena tries to get Daniel out alive, while Daniel keeps pretending he’s a “retard” (the movie’s words) so he can fool the baddies and plot his flight to freedom. The third act is filled with various action film tropes (cue the chase scene through a network of underground tunnels), and then some late twists that are fairly easy to telegraph.

Nobody’s asking any movie to be one hundred percent believable, but the filmmakers really make the task difficult by using English as the main language in a place where everyone speaks either Spanish or German (there are obviously budgetary/marketing reasons for this, but still), and by destroying all narrative tension through lazy writing that turns a harrowing part of Chilean history into the plot of a Chuck Norris flick. 

Both Watson and Bruhl do what they can with what’s on offer, though their performances are hampered by all the flat dialogue, as well as by the film’s refusal to truly contextualize anything outside a few explanations in the opening and closing title cards. When one young nun is asked about Colonia, she answers that “there is nothing to understand.” Really? Perhaps it's a language problem after all, though if anything should actually be said in Spanish here, it would probably be: ay, caramba!

Production companies: Majestic, Iris Productions, Rat Pack Filmproduktion, Rezo Productions, Fred Films
Cast: Emma Watson, Daniel Bruhl, Michael Nyqvist, Richenda Carey, Vicky Krieps
Director: Florian Gallenberger
Screenwriters: Torsten Wenzel, Florian Gallenberger
Producer: Benjamin Herrmann
Executive producers: Rudiger Boss, Dirk Schurhoff
Director of photography: Kolja Brandt
Production designer: Bernd Lepel
Costume designer: Nicole Fischnaller
Editor: Hansjorg Weissbrich
Composers: Andre Dziezuk, Fernando Velazquez
Casting directors: John Hubbard, Ros Hubbard
Sales agent: Beta Films (International); UTA (U.S.)

No rating, 110 minutes