Dir: Esteban Schroeder. Uruguay, Argentina, Chile. 2007. 97mins.
In Kill Them All, Esteban Schroeder plumbs the unstable political landscape of fledgling democracies in the South America of the early '90s. His confident, dynamic investigation of the complicity of governments that succeeded the juntas in countries like his native Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile recalls the best of Costa-Gavras; that it focuses on the aftermath of the so-called dirty wars rather than on that era itself distinguishes it from a plethora of political films from the region.
Schroeder successfully couples this corrupt post dictatorship milieu with an intimate portrayal of a female human-rights prosecutor, warts and all, who embarks on a quixotic journey to expose those who carried out some of the leaders' most egregious work. Roxana Blanco delivers a tour de force that will engage viewers not necessarily drawn to ideologically-driven subjects. If this first feature, which was in competition in San Sebastian, is marketed smartly, theatrical prospects in Spanish-speaking territories are good, with an afterlife on TV and DVD. Clever distributors could help it cross over into niche markets in non-Spanish-language regions.
Schroeder knows how to make a thriller thrill: He frequently cuts away unexpectedly from shot to shot, moves the camera swiftly, and hones in on objects and faces for mere seconds before advancing the plot. If this were fiction, the extremely taut script, adapted from Pablo Vierci and Schroeder's earlier screenplay 99% Murdered, might seem preposterous, but it is culled from horrifyingly real events. Under Pinochet, the Chilean secret police, DINA, employed 'los quimicos de la muerte' (chemical engineers of death), who developed methods to terminate the opposition with agents both bacteriological (staph) and chemical (sarin). One of its shining stars was Eugenio Berrios, who was held under lock and key by the Uruguayan military after Chile's transition to democracy. Under Operation Condor, intergovernmental agreements were meant to avoid incriminating testimony in any post-junta judicial processes.
Berrios's failed escape attempt in 1993 is the jumping-off point for the movie. Julia Gudari (Blanco) receives an anonymous tip that Berrios is seeking refugre in a provincial police station and plans to denounce the authorities. Before she arrives, Uruguayan military officers whisk him away and cover up the evidence. The determined Gudari stays on the trail, learning (and teaching us) about Berrios's crimes. Gudari's own father is a retired rightwing general who condoned the torture of subversives and embargoed her leftist lover 20 years before. The Freudianism of her paternal love-hate relationship is a potent, if somewhat schematic, complementary device, the main weaknesses being the scenery chewing by Reyno as the unrepentant dad and the caricatured visage of her sell-out brother, Ivan (Troncoso). Overall, the pop-psych element works, however, given that all of the politicos and cover-up bureaucrats she comes up against are male.
The written and shooting scripts meld efficiently and poignantly. Even against such a heavy, nasty social backdrop, Schroeder signals events before they unfold with a light touch. We don't comprehend the inserts of an empty beach until the payoff at film's end. (One repetition that Schroeder could have dispensed with is a shot of Julia swimming alone in a pool, an irritating cliche of catharsis.) Dogs are a recurring leitmotif. We hear loud barking early on, while Berrios is running away, creating a threatening tone. Julia meets an adolescent boy looking for his lost dog near the safehouse where Berrios had been guarded. Later she finds the animal, the victim of experimental chemicals. And, in a Santiago interview with the widow of another torturing engineer who had thrown political opponents to the animals, we again hear barking, with no dogs in sight.
Julia refuses to play the new governments' self-serving game. Her vindication comes in the form of a flash-forward two years later. As much as Kill Them All deals with agony and murder, what stays with you afterward is the ultimate victory of truth.
All technical credits, especially Sergio Armstrong's cinematography, are top notch, an exceptional feat given that the film was made for a mere $750,000. Schroeder uses Martin Pavlovski's tinkly piano music sparingly, a much more dramatically satisfying approach than the continuous overbearing tracks for political (and other) films that have become the norm. Schroeder, who could easily be scooped up by Hollywood should he wish, is at this point a master of, but no slave to, convention.
Esteban Schroeder y Asociados (Uruguay)
Morocha Films (Argentina)
Sur Films (Germany)
Esteban Schroeder y Asociados (Uruguay)
Gonzalo Rodriguez Bubis