After years of waiting, Patricio Guzman's epic documentary "The Battle Of Chile" finally makes its DVD debut. This is a rich, astounding chronicle of the Chilean Revolution under Salvador Allende, the cultural battles which sprouted as a result and how it all came to a tragic end in a CIA-sponsored military coup. This is not just a simple documentary on a historical event however, this is a powerful, visually stunning work with a scope that ranks it alongside political films like "The Battle Of Algiers," "Salvador" and "Z." Guzman here doesn't just give us a great chronicle, but great cinema.
"The Battle Of Chile" begins midway through the administration of Allende, who made history by becoming the world's first elected Marxist president. Guzman and his crew introduce us to Allende's Chile just as the population prepares to vote in a crucial parliamentary election. Allende is determined to show the world that a socialist transformation can be carried out through democratic, peaceful means and so his project is hampered by a system ruled by an old oligarchy and corporate elites. Guzman and his editors do a great job balancing intimate portraits of Chilean citizens and their concerns, hopes and dreams along with sharp reporting on political developments as right-wing members of congress work hard to derail all of Allende's progressive reforms. The opening of "Part 1" is fascinating as Guzman walks around the capital of Santiago interviewing average citizens and asking who they will vote for and why. He shows us both sides of the debate as working class Chileans express their support for Allende and his social reforms and upper class Chileans spew venomous hatred for the government. When Allende's coalition, Unidad Popular, wins the elections, the right-wing takes the battle into the streets and that's where the film truly does justice to its title. Chile turns into a political battleground as the workers become more militant in defense of the Revolution, forming popular committees, educating themselves politically and even engaging in street combat when fascist groups try to provoke strikes and start turning to bombs and plans for a coup when they realize they cannot defeat Allende through elections.
Like many of the best documentaries, "The Battle Of Chile" is impressive just in the way it was made. It is amazing to think Guzman had one camera most of the time, or that this was shot by a two, three man team. The images are epic and crisp, cinematic in scope and never boring. There are scenes of street combat where we are taken directly into the action, we never feel like outside observers during this entire film. Guzman takes us inside popular meetings, he lets the workers talk to us, express their ideals and criticisms, nobody feels like an interview subject but like people expressing their minds while experiencing a historical event. This film also never feels small, it is truly grand as Guzman goes everywhere from the copper minds where the right-wing tries to breed descent to towns where revolutionary workers demand arms to gatherings of Chile's US-trained military commanders, as they wait and see how things develop before deciding to move against the Revolution. We get epic vistas of Chile's cities and rural zones, with a brilliant establishment of time and space.
"The Battle Of Chile" is the best film on the Allende years because you get a true inside view of what it was like. Most documentaries made today which touch on the subject of Allende and the US-backed coup have to depend on surviving witnesses, some who's attitudes may have changed over the years, but this is a film made in the moment. A great bonus DVD added here is Guzman's sequel, "Chile, Obstinate Memory" where he returns to his country after 20 years in exile. Here we get to revisit some of the original people featured in "The Battle Of Chile" as they reflect on how the country went from a fever of hope to a period of fascist tyranny and death camps under Augusto Pinochet. One truly powerful moment comes when Guzman shows "Battle Of Chile" to a group of young Chileans raised under Pinochet's shadow, stunned to see in the film a history blocked from their lives.
In a way "The Battle Of Chile" is more important now than at any other time, especially when one looks at the current political changes taking place in Latin America. Many of the class battles and intrigue we see here are no doubt taking place again in countries like Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. This is not just a powerful document of a revolutionary period in Chile, but a masterful chronicle of a nation and people experiencing a unique moment in history. "The Battle Of Chile" is exciting, important and timeless.