TIFF 2015: Colonia
In 1973 political upheaval was shaking Chile’s young democracy. In the midst of the Cold War a military coup sends the country spiralling. Inspired by real events, director Florian Gallenberger aspires to recreate the story of what transpired at Colonia Dignidad, an infamous cult-like camp that very few ever escaped from, in his latest film Colonia. When word of its existence made it out of Chile, there was worldwide outrage. But, until the downfall of Augusto Pinochet, nothing changed in the country and these horrific conditions persisted. This is a vigorous attempt at a dramatic retelling but with a flawed script, the end result is a mediocre film that contains moments of good tension.
German photographer Daniel (Daniel Brühl) has come to Chile to document and partake in the political revolution grabbing hold of the country. His girlfriend Lena (Emma Watson) is a plucky flight attendant with Lufthansa Airlines who is in Santiago for a surprise visit. While she is there, a military coup is staged and when Daniel attempts to photograph brutality and violence being inflicted on citizens, he is arrested and taken to a facility known as Colonia Dignidad. Lena vows to go there to free her man by enlisting as a woman who is searching for God. The compound, presented as a charitable mission, is run by preacher Paul Schäfer who is controlling, manipulative, and delusional. Lena must blend in while searching for Daniel. The two find each other and are determined to escape.
The film is populated with very talented actors very much capable of handling this subject matter with confidence and strength but ultimately it suffers from a poorly written script executed with weak editing and at times lackadaisical direction. There are moments of excellent tension, most notably at the beginning as the lead characters are caught and at the end during their daring escape but its second act that drags the entire film down. For the majority of the story we are placed at the Colonia Dignidad watching as the characters attempt to blend in and formulate an escape plan. The pacing of these scenes is slow borders on tedium. They are so unsatisfactory that one might be tempted to leave the theatre early. The story drags and risks losing the interest of the viewer. Once we enter the third act however, the story and action heat back up and it the film ends nicely.
The real standout elements of the film are the villains of the story. Paul Schäfer, played by Michael Nyqvist, and Gisela, played by Richenda Carey are really detestable people. They are excellent at embodying the kinds of characters we love to hate in film. During the Q&A following the film both spoke about how difficult it was to find the character and understand them so as to be able to play them with authenticity and representative of the real people they are based on. The director stressed that they are really nice people outside of these characters and Carey found it fun to step into this role after typically playing posh British characters.
Unfortunately, with all the problems plaguing this film, even this excellent cast of top-notch actors could not save it. Watson and Brühl are as strong as they can be with the material they’ve been given but it just wasn’t enough to turn this into an overall enjoyable film. Continuing to add to what seems to be a year of unexpected disappointments at the festival, unless the viewer is an ardent fan of any of these actors, this is not a recommended film.
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