Dir: Carmen Castillo. Chile-Fr-Bel. 164mins.
Beginning as a reconstruction of the October 1977 police shooting of Chilean underground Marxist leader Miguel Enriquez, Calle Santa Fe is a long but ultimately compelling documentary both celebrates the anti-Pinochet resistance and subjects it to testing questions. These are made all the more incisive and affecting because Carmen Castillo, the film's director and narrator, was Enriquez' partner and fellow combatant - injured during the shootout, then arrested and sent into exile.
Playing in the Un Certain Regard section at this year's Cannes festival, the almost three-hour documentary received a long standing ovation after its official screening. That extended running time and the film's lack of technical finesse, with long passages of grainy handheld DV footage, will discourage classic theatrical distribution, but niche arthouse distributors may still want to take a chance on what is in the end a moving document with a fascinatingly nuanced ethical message.
Although it seems tailor-made for ageing revolutionaries (real or would-be) in both Europe and Latin America, younger generations may also be interested in a man who was in many ways a Chilean Che Guevara - not least because he too trained as a doctor.
The film's title refers to the street in Santiago where Carmen and Enrique lived in hiding with their two children (one each from previous liaisons) in the ten months leading up to the fatal shooting. We see the director herself going back to the house at number 727 in 2005 after over three decades of exile, spent partly on the road as a full-time anti-Pinochet campaigner and partly in Paris, where she now lives.
Castillo's visit to the house and interviews with local residents and shopkeepers is spliced in with news footage charting the coup that brought General Pinochet to power on history's other fateful 11 September, in 1973, and the subsequent brutal repression of all opposition to the regime.
As leader of the armed Marxist revolutionary group MIR - allied with Allende in a marriage of convenience - Martinez was public enemy number one after Pinochet's coup. But the couples' refuge was an ordinary house in an ordinary suburban street, where the woman in the corner shop still remembers senora Carmen popping in occasionally to stock up on Viceroy cigarettes.
This contrast between sleepy present-day reality and the intensity of past experience carries through into one of the main questions posed by the film - was it all worth it, when we look at today's Santiago with its global retail franchises and over-hasty desire to 'move on' after Pinochet was ousted in 1990, or was it just a misguided revolutionary dream'
Castillo has a detached, slightly aloof character - at least on screen - and perhaps it's this that fools us at the beginning into seeing the film as a sort of commemorative ego-trip. But it soon becomes clear that the director is using the documentary to ask herself some uncomfortable questions - was it right for her to stay in Paris when so many companeros returned secretly to Chile at the risk of torture, imprisonment or death, and above all, did her political commitment justify the abandonment of her daughter Camilla (who was sent to live in Havana between the ages of 7 and 17)'.
A long series of interviews with former activists and their children juggle the various issues, but the most moving conversation of all is with an elderly couple whose three MIR-affiliated sons - two of them still in their early teens - were shot dead by Pinochet's soldiers.
Music is a fitting accompaniment to the on-screen seesaw act: Juan Carlos Zagal's inventive score underlines dramatic moments with held violin chords or alleviates the tension with jaunty, tango-tinged themes.
Les Films d'Ici
Les Films de la Passerelle
L'Institut National de l'Audiovisuelle
Juan Carlos Zagal