Florian Gallenberger’s Colonia labors under the belief that if something awful happened in real life, it must automatically be dramatic. Because the Colonia Dignidad was a real-life horror show, then we’ll surely be riveted by what happened there, and the actual business of telling a good story with worthwhile characters is an afterthought. Unfortunately, without a firm foundation, Colonia feels exploitative and lazy. It’s ripped from a dark chapter in Chile’s history, but Gallenberger puts no work into developing his lead characters or selling us on their love story. He’s more interested in the darkness and despair that existed at Colonia Dignidad, but doesn’t use it for anything more than shocking his audience. It’s cheap storytelling cloaked in historical grandiosity and posturing.
Set in Chile in 1973 on the eve of Pinochet’s coup, Lena (Emma Watson) is a flight attendant visiting her boyfriend Daniel (Daniel Brühl), who’s working with activists to keep the democratically elected Salvador Allende in power. When troops overtake the city, Lena and Daniel are captured, and he’s taken away in a mysterious van. Lena is set free, and does some digging to discover that he’s been taken to Colonia Dignidad, a cult compound run by Paul Schäfer (Michael Nyqvist). Lena, in what must be the most poorly conceived and executed rescue mission of all-time, decides to infiltrate the compound and save her man.
The love story for Colonia is a weak pretense to get the audience into the compound. It’s difficult to criticize Watson and Brühl for lack chemistry since Gallenberger doesn’t spend much time with them beyond being dewy-eyed lovers. We certainly don’t know anything about Lena’s past, so her motivation to risk everything for Daniel has to come entirely from how much she loves him. But Colonia doesn’t provide a convincing love story since Daniel is whisked away about twenty minutes into the film. I could maybe believe that Lena would work with Amnesty International, contact the German* embassy, or anything outside of directly walking into the lion’s den. I like the concept of the girlfriend trying to rescue her guy, but as it’s presented in Colonia, Lena’s decision to infiltrate the compound seems far more foolish than brave.
But Gallenberger isn’t really interested as Lena and Daniel as anything more than archetypes. He’s just eager to get inside Colonia Dignidad, which would be acceptable if he gleaned anything from it other than a carnival of cruelty. It’s a religious cult, but the director doesn’t want to dig into belief systems or the particulars of how Colonia Dignidad operated in connection with Pinochet beyond the government dropping off dissenters to be tortured or the colony building weapons for the dictator. The psychology inside Colonia Dignidad is always ignored in favor of watching women get beaten or Schäfer molesting young boys off-screen.
I wasn’t aware of Colonia Dignidad before seeing this movie, but just because a horrible place exists, that doesn’t mean it offers a riveting story. To fill the feature with non-characters and a bland narrative makes what happened at the compound titillating rather than something that can truly horrify us. The lack of details reduces the impact of what happened at Colonia Dignadad and does a disservice to every single victim who lived and died inside of its walls.
Colonia Dignidad was covered up with lies, and so perhaps its fitting that Colonia is a resoundingly dishonest film, not in relating particular events, but from an emotional and storytelling standpoint. I hope that one day a filmmaker does right by the victims of Colonia Dignidad because Colonia is exploitative garbage.
*Side-note: It’s odd that for a film that takes place in Chile during one of the most important times in the country’s history, Colonia features no Chilean or even Latino actors in lead roles. Everything that happens before Lena goes to Colonia Dignidad feels like a “When Bad Things Happen to White People” warning.
Click here for all of our TIFF 2015 coverage thus far or peruse links to our reviews below:
- 45 Years
- Being Charlie
- Black Mass
- The Danish Girl
- Green Room
- I Smile Back
- The Iron Giant: Signature Edition
- Kill Your Friends
- The Lobster
- The Martian
- Men & Chicken
- Where to Invade Next