“Prison in the Andes” (“Penal cordillera”)


Screened at the 40th Annual Chicago Latino Film Festival (2/5); Letterboxd (2/5), Imdb.com (4/10), TMDB.com (4/10)

When right-wing Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was ousted from office in 1990, five of his henchmen (fanatical military officers charged with doing the autocrat’s dirty work) were sentenced to incarceration for terms totaling hundreds of years at a special “prison” at the base of the Andes Mountains. The facility was far more comfortable than a typical penitentiary, where the now-aged egomaniacal inmates enjoyed comparatively more freedom and privileges than what typical prisoners experienced and where the guards were more like domestic servants than corrections officers. While the residents often complained about their accommodations – far less lavish than what they were accustomed to – they had it relatively easy given what they had done and were now being “punished” for. In fact, in many respects, they still called the shots, despite the presence of supposed state authorities overseeing their “confinement.”  Director Felipe Carmona chronicles the unconventional circumstances of the inmates and staff in this fact-based account of their waning days “behind bars,” circa 2013. However, their story is anything but easy to follow, featuring a narrative that’s all over the map with little coherency connecting the various segments and story threads. Conflicting cinematic styles (including some that are almost surreal in nature and others that are downright silly, such as a sequence shot in the style of an old-time black-and-white silent movie), along with themes that seldom feel fully fleshed out, seriously bog down the overall flow of the story, leaving viewers more confused than enlightened by the time the credits roll. Admittedly, as a picture made for Chilean audiences, there likely are a number of nuanced elements whose significance becomes lost in translation, but, even setting that consideration aside, “Prison in the Andes” simply is not well assembled as a cogent cinematic offering. I’ve seen more than my share of Chilean movies over the years, including a variety of releases related to the Pinochet regime during its heyday and in the aftermath of its fall from power, but this muddled release definitely isn’t one of them.