“The Battle of Chile,” Patricio Guzmán’s 264-minute account of the social whirlwind that swept Salvador Allende’s socialist government in the early 1970s, is an epic documentary, openly Marxist analysis, and a stunning exercise in “you’re there” vérité, not to mention one notable example of contraband film – composed of footage smuggled out of fascist Chile and edited in communist Cuba to premiere on the radical fringes of the 1975 Cannes Film Festival (together with ‘Jeanne Dielman by Chantal Akerman).
The complete film, which has recently been restored – parts 1 and 2 first shown in the United States in 1978, part 3 in 1980 – will premiere at the Rose Cinemas of the Brooklyn Academy of Music and will be screened for a week.
The revival run coincides with the 50th anniversary of the other September 11, the day of the military coup led by Augusto Pinochet – a tragedy that has haunted Guzmán throughout his career and haunts the Latin American left to this day. The film comes at a time of renewed interest in the period that included a new novel, ‘The Suicide Museum’ by Ariel Dorfman, and the renewed search for the remains of those who had ‘disappeared’ during the dictatorship.
‘The Battle’ consists of three parts. “The Revolt of the Bourgeoisie” concerns the 1972 elections, in which the right failed to win enough votes to depose Allende and, encouraged by the United States, sought other means to reverse its nationalizations. ‘The Coup’ begins with a ‘practice coup’ in June 1973 and shows Chile’s decline into open class war, culminating in the real coup of September 11. to the overthrow of Allende, emphasizing the revolutionary spirit of the Chilean workers.
Filmed largely with hand-held cameras by a team of five, ‘The Battle’ is both action-packed and full of non-stop talk. Mass rallies crowd out man-in-the-street interviews and political speeches. In one violent demonstration, a filmmaker is shot, documenting his own death. It is impossible not to get carried away.
The film had its US premiere at Film Forum, one of the few commercial venues equipped to show 16mm film. According to programmer Karen Cooper, it was the first big splash in her small theater, which attracted a lot of attention. “Great movies rarely arrive as unannounced as ‘The Battle of Chile’,” wrote critic Pauline Kael in The New Yorker at the time.
DailyExpertNews critic Vincent Canby found the film “depressing” for its simplifications, though “undeniably epic.” Other critics were blown away: Writing in The Village Voice, Tom Allen (by no means left) called it “a tremendous achievement” and “the most important political film of our time.” Though rarely revived, “The Battle” has classic status, ranking 18th in a recent New Republic poll of the 100 most important political films.
In addition to maintaining an unmistakable point of view, the documentary exudes a unique sense of immediacy. Guzmán returned from Spain, where he had studied filmmaking, in 1971 to experience firsthand the euphoria that followed Allende’s election. The exciting sense of participation in a society being remade fuels the film. The inevitable end makes the unfolding situation seem even more urgent.
‘The Battle’ opens with the air raid on the presidential palace in which Allende died and looks back at the events leading up to the coup. It ends with a moment that defies chronology. A doomed organizer says goodbye to the filmmaker: “We’ll see you, comrade.” The effect is like watching the river of history flow and spread in the sea of time.
The Battle of Chile
September 8-14 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; bam.org.