The Revolutionary Cinema of Patricio Guzman

Still from The Cordillera of Dreams.

On February 12th, the IFC in New York will begin showing “The Cordillera of Dreams”, the latest film from Patricio Guzman. The 78-year-old Chilean is one of Latin America’s most celebrated leftwing directors, whose three-part “The Battle of Chile” became an iconic film alongside Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas’s 1968 tripartite “Hour of the Furnaces” that dealt with the revolutionary movement in Argentina. For sixties radicals like me, these films were required viewing. Timed to the release of Guzman’s latest, Ovid—the Netflix of the left—has added five Guzman films to their nonpareil inventory. After some words on “The Cordillera Of Dreams”, I will cover some of the new Ovid offerings.

Cordillera is the Spanish word for mountain range, such as the Andes that Guzman uses as a symbol of Chilean hopes and disappointment. Constituting 80 percent of Chile’s landmass, it is the primary source of the country’s copper-mining wealth and its cultural legacy. For most Chileans, it is just something seen in landscape paintings, including a mural in the Santiago subway.

Like a leitmotif in one of Wagner’s operas, Guzman returns to images of the mountains, captured beautifully by a drone. They serve as a backdrop for the nation’s search for identity in a period when neoliberalism governs all social relations. That identity remains with him despite not naving lived in the country since the coup. In dozens of films since “The Battle of Chile”, he has struggled to keep alive the dreams that marked the pre-coup years when everything seemed possible. The cordillera of dreams is a way of saying that dreams are as permanent as the Andes.

The film is almost like a travelogue as Guzman tours both Santiago and the mountainous countryside in search of that elusive identity. As might be expected, his time is spent mostly with the men and women who share his radical vision of a Chile cleansed of the Pinochet residue. Chief among them is Pablo Salas, who by some miracle avoided “disappearance”. The 64-year-old Salas not only did not go into exile like Guzman, but he also used both still and motion pictures to document the resistance to Pinochet for the past 46 years. He has hundreds of tapes and films kept in an archive, many of which appear throughout the film. It is a revelation to see that the left risked certain death or torture to protest Pinochet from the minute he took power. One can understand why Guzman could think of the mountains and the people simultaneously.

In an interview with Variety, Guzman replied to the question, “Is the main character, the Andean cordillera (mountain range), a metaphor for the Chilean soul?” as follows:

It’s an important wall. You can’t escape it anywhere. Not in Santiago nor any part of the country. I think this wall contributes to the loneliness, the depression, the confinement that Chileans live with — and have always lived with, even before Pinochet. There’s a way of being in Chile that is conditioned by this enormous, endless wall. Chile is a closed-off country, a narrow valley, and that has shaped our way of being, which is completely different from that of the Argentinians. Ours is a country twisted towards sadness.

Despite the sorrow expressed here, “The Cordillera Of Dreams” is replete with footage of the recent protests that feature Pablo Salas taking it all in with his videocam. Perhaps, it will be a revival of the socialist movement that will lift this sadness once and for all.

Let me turn now to some of the Guzman films I have seen since I began reviewing films. All are available on Ovid and justify taking out a subscription posthaste.

The Pinochet Case (2001)

Made only three years after Pinochet’s arrest during a vacation in London, the film gives equal time to the men and women who survived torture in his prisons and the legal struggle to make him pay for his depravities.

Then in their forties and fifties, those giving testimony were activists guilty of no other crime except fighting for democratic socialism. Unlike the fuzzy understanding of the term disseminated by Bernie Sanders, the Chilean left hoped to achieve socialism through peaceful means. For that, they were punished by the cops and the army, with nearly 4,000 losing their lives in the process. If Chile had the same population as the USA at the time of Pinochet’s coup, that would amount to a loss of 80,000 lives.

We learn from the film that Spain pushed for the extradition of Pinochet because the country had an affinity for one that had to endure their version of General Franco. Just after the Spanish Civil War ended, many who fought against Franco sought refuge in France. Unfortunately, France was about to face another fascist regime of its own before very long, something that was obvious to Chile’s ambassador in Paris. Sensing the looming danger, he got in touch with his government that sent over a ship immediately to carry back to Chile all the Spanish Civil War veterans it could hold. The diplomat’s name was Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, who would later become better-known as Pablo Neruda.

One of the British politicians who shows up in the film making the case for Pinochet standing trial is the 51-year old Jeremy Corbyn. In his way, he suffered the same kind of rightwing constellation of dark forces as Allende. As the film makes clear, Chile under Pinochet became the template for neoliberal regimes ever since 1973, whether they came to power through the ballot or the bayonet.

Salvador Allende (2004)

It is evident from “Salvador Allende” that Guzmán is a partisan of the Popular Unity government, a coalition of working-class and bourgeois parties that campaigned successfully for Allende in 1970. Despite this, the film is not uncritical. In a gut-wrenching segment that occurs toward the end of the film, a group of worker-militants–now in advanced middle-age–think back ruefully on the period and wonder why they were so ill-prepared to resist the coup. One, barely holding back tears, says, “We should have done more to strengthen the cords.” As somebody who followed the events in Chile between 1970 and 1973, this reference was obscure even to me. What was a cord?

In the course of looking at some studies of the Popular Unity government days after seeing the film, I discovered the answer. Cord is the nickname for cordónes, the neighborhood and factory-based committees that Chileans recognized as a form of “people’s power.” If organized and armed on a nation-wide basis, this institution and others like it could have successfully beaten back the coup. Unfortunately, Allende’s Socialist Party and the Communists were suspicious of the grassroots movement. They relied almost exclusively on official state institutions such as parliament and the army to promote an agenda that while progressive stopped short of the elimination of private property.

“Salvador Allende” is filled with oblique references to this failure but focuses more on Allende the individual, whose tragic inability to remain in power flows from his political roots. In one of the film’s very revealing interviews, the former mayor of Allende’s hometown Valparaiso, a self-described Communist and friend, states that Allende identified with the values of the French Revolution. He never once defended Marxist ideas in private conversations, even though he was familiar with the literature. Another interviewee states that Allende’s earliest ideological influence was an Italian anarchist shoemaker. These two accounts add up to a portrait of somebody committed to the ideas of freedom, but not in the best position to realize them through the exercise of state power.

The film excels at bringing to life the long journey Allende made in Chilean politics. Contrary to the impression many people–including me–have of the Popular Unity government being something unique in Chilean history, the first popular front government won office in 1938, a Latin American counterpart of the Spanish and French Socialist Party-led coalition governments. On that occasion, the 30-year-old Allende became Minister of Health. Like Che Guevara, Allende was a trained physician. After the popular front lost the next election, Allende continued to run for regional and national offices for the remainder of his political career. The film includes fascinating scenes of the young Allende speaking to crowds of working-class people with joyful expressions on their faces. If Allende lacked a clear vision of how state power could defend their interests, he at least was always forceful about what those interests were.

The Pearl Button (2015)

Since the exalted agitprop of the two films above shaped my view of Guzman’s work, I was completely surprised by one that so skillfully combined politics and art. “The Pearl Button” will remind you of Eduardo Galeano at his best. Narrated by Guzman, “The Pearl Button” is a meditation on the ontological mystery of water, the extinction of the Patagonian Indians who had a unique connection to the ocean, and the persecution of Allende’s supporters. Helicopters used to drop their corpses into the very waters of the Pacific Ocean that the indigenous peoples regarded as essential to their being.

The eponymous pearl button is a reference to Jemmy Button, as the British colonizers called him. He was a Patagonian Indian that Captain Fitzroy of the HMS Beagle—the same ship that Charles Darwin sailed on–brought back to England in 1830 under circumstances typical of the unequal power relations of the day and that continues now. When the natives stole one of Fitzroy’s boats, he took a group hostage. Jemmy’s price was that of a single mother of pearl button. Christianized forcefully, dressed in respectable garments (his people preferred to walk about unclothed with their bodies painted), and taught English, he was nothing more than a kind of curiosity to amuse the British. Once he returned home, he discarded their clothing and reunited with the Yámana people who never quite accepted him. Being lost between two worlds is generally the fate of indigenous peoples.

When Guzman learned that the Chilean government had commissioned a task force to retrieve the bodies of Pinochet’s victims, he went along to film their work. As was the custom, Pinochet’s goons tied the corpse to a six-foot section of rail to weigh it down in the Pacific. On one dive, the cops retrieved such a rail, but the dead body had washed away long ago. The only thing remaining was a shred of the victim’s clothing and a single mother-of-pearl button.

As a kind of prelude to these stories, Guzman explores the significance of water—a part of nature that it is all too easy to take for granted. It turns out that if it had not been for the landing of a comet on earth quite by accident billions of years ago, the oceans might not have come into being. The director interviews several scientists who appear to be on the same political and artistic wavelength as him. They explain that water permeates everything we see and touch, including our bodies, the soil, the sky, and the food we eat. Citing scientist Thedor Schwenk who founded the Institute of Flow, a research center on water, Guzman notes that “…the act of thinking resembles water due to its capacity to adapt to everything. The law of thought is the same as that of water, always ready to adapt itself to everything”.

Stunning images of the heavens, the oceans and the earth, which only such a gifted director could summon up, accompany such observations. His words, spoken slowly and clearly in the tone of a seer, the film score and the images combine to both educate and inspire.


Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.