PENAL CORDILLERA (which translates to Prison in the Andes) is a debut feature that demands much of director Felipe Carmona. It delivers on its intriguing premise with a close examination of the characters of arrogant, formerly powerful men. The sideways glance it also offers on topics including sexuality and societal trauma makes it fascinating.
The film takes place almost entirely within the confines of a prison holding former top members of the Chilean military from during Pinochet’s dictatorship. The opening moments of Carmona’s film – with soft sunlight and a focus on the calm setting – present the prison almost as a somewhat shabby spa retreat. However, this confined but cushty existence is scrutinised when General Contreras (Hugo Medina) gives an unapologetic TV interview – where he claims one of the guards is just present “to hold [his] cane” – which is received poorly outside the prison. In an attempt to maintain their privileges, tensions between the men, the prison leadership, and the young guard Navarette (Andrew Bargsted) rise and spill over into fear and violence.
“The presentation of the former military leaders and their privileges is fascinating, […], with Carmona balancing some deadpan humour against uncomfortable juxtapositions.”
The presentation of the former military leaders and their privileges is fascinating, particularly how they interact with outsiders such as their lawyers and a man tasked with bringing them their preferred treats and luxuries, with Carmona balancing some deadpan humour against uncomfortable juxtapositions. At one stage, General Odlanier Mena (Alejandro Trejo) – who we also see being allowed to leave to visit his grandchildren – laments the loss of his Acqua di Gio cologne as the tightening of their privileges begins to bite. At all times, the men conduct themselves with authority, and the surety cocksure demeanour of powerful men – torturer Miguel Krassnoff (Bastián Bodenhöfer) even leads the guards’ training drills. The justice system may have defanged them on a broad scale, but they will clearly fight tooth and nail to preserve any power they have by whatever means.
“Carmona’s script also asserts delusions of grandeur; as Mena showers his hawk with affection, it is revealed the bird over which he has power is humbly named Leonidas.”
Their arrogance comes through in Carmona’s script in several ways, including how rarely they refer to any of the guards by name (“that shaggy young man”) besides the cowed Navarette. Carmona’s script also asserts delusions of grandeur; as Mena showers his hawk with affection, it is revealed the bird over which he has power is humbly named Leonidas.
The film takes time to examine the effects the men and what they represent had (and perhaps continue to have) on the society which had their boots on its neck. The bursts of violence later in the film are shocking for their casual execution as much as anything else: a natural exertion of power, however small that may now be. The behaviour of Navarette, still somewhat in thrall to the men’s aura, is perhaps reflective of the trauma which lingers on past the ousting of Pinochet’s regime (something Pablo Larrain also attempted recently via a more darkly comic route in EL CONDE). His own violent outburst and anxieties around his sexuality belie a deep fear of those around him.
Based on an actual set of events, where the interview by Contreras led to the prison’s closure in 2013 by President Sebastian Piñera, PENAL CORDILLERA still has time as the men are transferred to highlight their horrific crimes one further time. In the back of a scruffy vehicle, they list their humanitarian atrocities as casually and care-free as the Chilean athletic medallists they quiz each other on throughout the film. This pairing of casual flowing dialogue with a heinous undercurrent gives PENAL CORDILLERA its intrigue and power. Carmona’s examination of how contemporary, young Chileans react to and are sometimes beholden by the spectres of the past leaves it open whether the title refers purely to the colloquial name of El Centro de Cumplimiento Penitenciario Cordillera or perhaps more darkly to the Chilean national psyche.