Possibly the most riveting and vital historical document ever put on celluloid, Patricio Guzmán’s three-part 1975-79 guerrilla epic The Battle of Chile is an unforgettable experience. Why then has it been forgotten? How could such a summoning of worker unity, injustice, social disaster, and power-mad malice not help to change history itself? (Coincidentally, the violent 1973 Chilean coup fell on 9-11.) For all of their vivid immediacy, nonfiction political movies rarely dent the public bubble; the fact that pro-Pinochet-slanted media blab and CIA skulduggery could’ve overshadowed Guzmán’s earthquake of a film in the American consciousness speaks scary amplitudes about our ovine hearts and minds.
Because stateside newspapers aren’t enough, The Battle of Chile should be a prerequisite to Guzmán’s new doc, The Pinochet Case. The older movie may be the only way for non-Chileans to acquire a sense of what’s at stake with the recent legal machinations in Spain, England, and finally Chile itself to bring the erstwhile dictator to trial. Guzmán, shooting now in sober, clean digital video, tracks the case from Madrid prosecutor Carlos Castressana’s discovery of an international-culpability loophole in Spanish law that enabled him to charge Pinochet with general human rights violations, through to Pinochet’s safe landing in his homeland, at which point the sleepwalking Chilean judicial system suddenly woke up and smelled the carrion.
A coda in every sense, The Pinochet Case splits time between a minute-by-minute account of the British court’s extradition chess game and the regime’s talking-head survivors (as in Shoah, the trauma-savvy victims smile a good deal, as one woman does describing a post-electroshock sexual assault: “I was not in any kind of condition for a rape”). Guzmán lobs in the occasional hand grenade: a forensic researcher calmly counting the vertebrae while assembling exhumed bones, appalling archival footage of Pinochet’s posh house arrest as Thatcher visits (“Five months is a long time to be confined,” she tells him sympathetically, ” . . . in a house”), a climactic glimpse of a new Allende statue garnering paranoid squints. Of course, Pinochet has been deemed unfit for trial since Guzmán’s film premiered last September in Toronto, a predictable self-preservative solution for the political industry. The question hangs in the air: As doggedly as the 20th century’s despots, scumbag power brokers, and diplo-monsters may be brought up on international charges in the wake of Pinochet’s indictment, will any of them ever be permitted to stand trial?
Smiling sex-ogre Ted Bundy was tried and fried, but Matthew Bright’s polished, small-budget biopic on the notorious predator never digs very deep. Working on the lurid, just-watch-the-psycho surface, Bright follows Bundy (a positively feral Michael Reilly Burke) as he gradually embarks on his cross-country spree of raped corpses, only occasionally locating an ironic horror moment in the process. (A fave: Bundy carrying a bound-up body nonchalantly past a group of evening dog-walkers.) To his credit, Bright doesn’t wimp out on the nastier scenes (Bundy’s brutal insistence that his splayed and bound girlfriend pretend she’s dead while fucking) or more complicated confrontations (the fierce roadside fight put up by would-be victim Carol DeRonch). In the end, Ted Bundy‘s only justification is the director’s common but unexplored fascination with the frustrated maniac; there’s no larger point, and little social context. Badlands this ain’t.
For mid-century, mid-American desolation and reverb, the revival of Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 career peak The Last Picture Show (at the Pioneer through September 17) is the best bet on New York screens. A dusty, windy requiem for the small frontier town, in elegant black and white and acted within a hardscrabble inch of its life, Bogdanovich’s classic remains the As I Lay Dying of the American New Wave.