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Penal Cordillera (Prison in the Andes): Film Review

Penal Cordillera (Prison in the Andes) is an uncomfortable film that delivers a chilling and menacing portrayal of the remainders of Pinochet’s dictatorship.

Penal Cordillera (Prison in the Andes) is anything but an easy watch. But, given the subject matter, it was only to be expected. The way the film makes its audience sit through an uncomfortable hour and 45 minutes is part of its uniqueness. With his film, Felipe Carmona examines what happens to the perpetrators when they risk becoming powerless. Their unwillingness to accept their fall from power and their responsibility for the atrocious crimes they caused during Pinochet’s regime creates a harrowing picture of Chile in the post-Pinochet era.

Based on a true story, Penal Cordillera examines the lives of the dangerous perpetrators of the horrible crimes in Pinochet’s dictatorship. The film follows five military officers serving their sentence, amounting to several hundreds of years, in a luxury prison in the Andes. More than a prison, this place feels like a resort, with its own pool, gardens, and guards who act more like employees than people who have to watch over their prisoners. When an interview creates an unexpected backlash, the protagonists will do anything in their power to avoid being transferred to a regular jail, allowing violence and chaos to spread across the mountains.

Penal Cordillera feels much like a character study as it sets out to analyse these despicable people: do they feel any remorse for what they have done? According to the film, the answer is no. The most terrifying part of the whole movie is its inciting incident: the interview, which I wish we could have seen more of. In the footage, we hear one of the generals say that he only did his duty, thus raising the question of where these evil actions may originate from: Is it really just a question of obeying orders mindlessly? The audience also sees his unwillingness to accept any responsibility for what he has done and, therefore, the sentence he has been given: after all, his so-called prison is hardly really a punishment.

loud and clear reviews Penal Cordillera (Prison in the Andes) (BFI London Film Festival 2023)
Penal Cordillera (Prison in the Andes) (BFI London Film Festival 2023)

Similarly, one of the most harrowing scenes in the movie is towards the end when we hear the main characters recount the crimes they have committed: their conversation feels casual, without an ounce of regret, much like they were listing off grocery items rather than people they have killed. They seemingly feel nothing in the face of death and torture they have perpetrated, making them even more terrifying because of the simplicity with which they speak about this. Their strong belief in their inculpability made my blood run cold when watching Penal Cordillera as it is an interesting reflection of how people in power can feel like they are above any type of law and morality, and how power can ultimately surpass everything else.

I also loved the film’s cinematography: Every shot is beautifully designed, with a particularly clever use of colours and lightning. We see a monochromatic use of light as each of the primary colours features prominently in certain scenes and defines the narrative thematically.

I do, however, think Penal Cordillera had some issues with its rhythm as it would have benefitted from a quicker pace. The narrative is also sometimes flawed: throughout the film, we keep following a secondary plot line focused on one of the guards which I found myself caring little about as it ultimately felt disconnected from the main story.

I left this movie with a desire to keep reflecting on its character portrayals and the question it asks the audience; if it is not an easy watch, it is an even harder film to digest. Although I wish the film had focused on its biggest strength: the portrayal of the prisoners and the inner analysis of these monstrous characters, Penal Cordillera is worthwhile because of its significant subject matter and beautiful cinematography, which support each other and go hand in hand beautifully, elevating the final product to a compelling and necessary film.

Penal Cordillera (Prison in the Andes) had its World Premiere at the 2023 BFI London Film Festival on 6-7 October. Read our list of 25 movies to watch at the 2023 London Film Festival!

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