'Santiago, Italia': Film Review

Courtesy of Sacher Films
A minor addition to the work of a cult filmmaker.

Nanni Moretti ('The Son’s Room') interviews Chileans who survived the fall of Allende and the Pinochet regime with the help of the Italian embassy in Santiago.

The 1973 coup d’etat in Chile, which ushered in decades of military dictatorship, seems a bit far afield as the topic for an Italian documentary, particularly after the classic works by local directors like Patricio Guzman and Miguel Littin (who both make appearances here). The attraction, of course, is that Santiago, Italia is written and directed by the politically insightful Nanni Moretti, who can be counted on to approach any subject from an unconventional and thought-provoking angle.

In the present case, the new angle (local as it might be) is the generous support that the Italian embassy in Santiago gave to hundreds of opponents of the regime. During the worst years of the dictatorship, the embassy staff offered asylum to anyone frightened enough to jump over its six-foot walls and undoubtedly saved many lives.

But, like a thriller in which the big twist arrives in the last shot, the moral of the story is made explicit in the final interview. A man who has lived through the hell of political persecution describes how Italy welcomed him like a generous mother. Today, he sadly notes, Italian political ideology of the 1970s, with its dream of creating a better, more caring world, has degenerated into a society as selfishly individualistic as Chile at its worst. 

It's an evaluation with which many viewers will agree. Santiago, Italia has done well in its first week of Italian theatrical release, following its premiere as the closing-night film at Turin. Its main market, though, will probably be the small screen.

Used to Moretti’s outspoken swagger and barbed wit, fans will need to reorder their priorities for this incredibly straight documentary, made in the most classic way possible. Excluding the unclassifiable genre hybrid Caro Diario, Moretti has not often detoured into the docu format, apart from a memorably rousing satire on the fall of the Italian Communist party, La Cosa, from 1990. Here, the tragic Chilean drama precludes the bite of satire.

Even more of an anomaly is the low profile Moretti keeps as a discreet, off-camera interviewer. The one exception involves a scene with a former military officer, now serving a prison term, who peevishly complains that he understood this was going to be an impartial interview. Moretti suddenly appears in front of the camera, silencing him with a stern, “But I’m not impartial.” It stirs a proud ripple in the viewers’ conscience, but it also highlights the film’s near-total lack of intellectual conflict. In fact, the story revolves around such black-and-white issues — Allende vs. Pinochet, democracy vs. dictatorship, freedom vs. repression — that most of the audience will have chosen sides long before they bought their tickets.

Another surprise is the determinedly unflashy way the doc intercuts interviews with archival footage. As might be expected, there are some very tense, emotional moments when the victims of torture recall their ordeals, or grown men choke up at the thought of a dream of equality that has perished. They are, however, a small part of the stream of talking heads that make up the body of the film. The first half reconstructs the subjects’ joyful exuberance when socialist candidate Salvador Allende overturned Chile’s political landscape by winning the 1970 elections. Just three years later, joy turns to shock as radios announce the military takeover of the country. Though the bombing of the presidential palace, La Moneda, by the Chilean Air Force has been seen on film often enough, it still leaves a chilling impression.

It is not until more than half the doc is over that the focus shifts to the sprawling, graceful Italian embassy in Santiago and the key role it played in protecting some 250 people who sought refuge there, turning no one away. Moretti poses questions to the gray-haired survivors of that experience, who have nothing but praise for the help they received from the Italians in their hour of need. While other embassies eventually gave up on their open-door policy in Pinochet’s Chile, the Italians held out the longest. Most generously, they finally flew an unspecified number of refugees to Italy, where they were welcomed, given jobs and integrated into society. It is the closest the film comes to being topical.

Production companies: Sacher Film, Le Pacte, Storyboard Media, Rai Cinema
Director-screenwriter: Nanni Moretti
Producers: Nanni Moretti, Jean Labadie, Gabriela Sandoval, Carlos Nunez
Director of photography: Maura Morales Bergmann
Editor: Clelio Benevento
World sales: Le Pacte

80 minutes