The Young Butler: Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlinale 2011
Documentary on one man's role in the Pinochet torture machine completely misses its mark.

It's hard to imagine a more off-the-mark portrait of Jorgelino Vergara -- who in the mid-1970s worked as a houseboy in the Pinochet regime's most notorious detention-torture center.

BERLIN -- (Forum) Overlong, technically unremarkable and journalistically risible, it's hard to imagine a more off-the-mark portrait of Jorgelino Vergara -- who in the mid-1970s worked as a houseboy in the Pinochet regime's most notorious detention-torture center -- than The Young Butler by Marcela Said and Jean de Certeau.

Given the dramatic subject, the film's lack of dramatic coherence will seriously test the patience of many festival-goers, pretty much the film's only audiences. The thousands of Chileans disappeared and killed in those years don't deserve attempted artiness in the name of justice.

Vergara was only 14 when he left the Chilean provinces for Santiago, the nation's capital. Two years later, he was working for the secret police (DINA) at the infamous Simon Bolivar cartel, feeding and bathing prisoners barely older than himself and bringing coffee to officers during torture sessions.

The filmmakers would have us absorb the essence of this man through long sequences of him hunting rabbits, digging for underground crabs and washing his clothes. We get that he's unemployed and terribly poor but only halfway through the film do we discover that Vergara is actually collaborating with the Chilean government to bring some of the torturers to justice.

This might have helped make Vergara a little more sympathetic in the beginning of the film, when he asks a bewildered government official -- buried under countless ledgers that presumably contain information on the thousands of the disappeared and killed -- for state compensation for his suffering. Vergara contends he was only a child when he started working for DINA and then was impeded from studying and living a normal life afterwards by the government.

Vergara is to this day trying to exorcise demons that will no doubt haunt him forever, about his relatively passive role in the horrors of the past. His contradictions make him all the more powerful a subject yet Said and Certeau are more interested in creating a work of introspective art than answering the myriad questions the story raises.

The filmmakers simply toss in some of the most shocking scenes, such as when Vergara sits down for a chat with one of his former employers, a high-ranking former DINA officer since then convicted and jailed thanks to Vergara's testimony. Or when Vergara identifies one of the disappeared, Daniel Palma, before his children, confirming Palma's death to them for the first time since they began searching for their father 27 years ago.

When Vergara goes so far as to write down the names of Palma's torturers he is clearly enjoying his important moment in the sun, another aspect of the tortured man the directors chose not to explore.

In the very end, as a footnote, we find out that Vergara's testimony has helped the Chilean government prosecute 75 cases, but the how and why are apparently not for us to know.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival, Forum
Sales company: Jirafa Films
Production company: Icalma films
Directors: Marcela Said, Jean de Certeau
Screenwriters: Marcela Said, Jean de Certeau
Producer: Marcela Said
Director of photography: Arnaldo Rodriguez