A Place Called Dignity

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Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

A Place Called Dignity
"In the absence of script and character development he relies on things like the heavy use of a blue filter and the increasing volume of Handel's Sarabande form Suite No4 in D Minor in a bid to shore up the mood." | Photo: Courtesy of POFF

A Place Called Dignity is the latest drama to take on the abusive horrors that happened behind the gated, religious doors of the Colony of Dignity in Chile, which has also in recent years been the focus of Emma Watson-starrer The Colony, animation The Wolf House, documentary Songs Of Repression and Netflix documentary series A Sinister Sect: Colonia Dignida.

Matias Rojas Valencia uses an outsider, 12-year-old Pablo (Salvador Insunza, making a strong impression), as our surrogate into this German community whose outward face of singing and industriousness hid a decades long rule by abuser its leader Paul Schäfer (Hanns Zischler), who also had a sideline in torture and disappearances for the Pinochet regime.

For little Pablo and his mother, the chance to become the first scholarship child in the community seems like a real opportunity as Schäfer - referred to in the community as "permanent uncle" - says he'll be given an enviable education as well as joining the community choir.

Once he enters the dormitory, however, we begin to see the signs of both indoctrination and repression. A tannoy blasts out a sort of Hallmark brand of religious encouragement as the children head to the fields, including, "Subdue to God and resist the devil" and " To work is to serve God". But a new-found friend Rudolph Noa Westermeyer) confides that God sees everything - hinting at the complex set of surveillance that operates night and day in the community.

The director adopts a straightforward approach initially, letting a melancholic atmosphere take hold as he shows, although not overtly, how some young boys are singled out as "sprinters", for special attention from Schäfer, including TV privileges and overnight stays, while older members of the community are also shamed if they transgress. Although the film maintains a non-salacious and mainstream approach in this retelling, it is very broad in terms of its emotions, giving little sense of the inner psychology of any of the characters. Valencia offers us an overview of the culture Schäfer created - not just abuse of children but the long-term indoctrination of adults, here encapsulated by a nurse (Amalia Kassai) and her boyfriend (David Gaete), who are trying to teach themselves about the birds and bees in the absence of instruction. There's also a nod to the connections between the Colony and the Pinochet regime, although, like much of this film, it feels like a primer overview rather than a dive into deeper emotional territory.

While Valencia succeeds in generating discomfort - particularly in a Christmas scene involving the arrival of a scary Krampus - without tipping over into sensationalism, in the absence of script and character development he relies on things like the heavy use of a blue filter and the increasing volume of Handel's Sarabande form Suite No4 in D Minor in a bid to shore up the mood.

The director is, reportedly, working on a docufiction hybrid, Our Memory, which is based on his research of the Colony, which one suspects will turn out to be the more illuminating than this.

Reviewed on: 23 Nov 2021
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Considering the dark past of Chile's Colonia Dignidad through the eyes of a child.

Director: Matías Rojas Valencia

Writer: Matías Rojas Valencia

Starring: Paulina García, Clara Larrain, Amalia

Year: 2021

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: Chile, Argentina, Germany

Festivals:

Black Nights 2021

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If you like this, try:

The Wolf House