Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Geriatric Espionage? (Reviewing Chile's Oscar Nominee)

In 1970, Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky released El Topo, a surrealist movie that seemingly created the Acid Western genre and was a Mexican entry for the Oscars (it was filmed in Mexico, but ultimately not nominated). This year, Chilean director Maite Alberdi’s El Agente Topo (The Mole Agent) is most emphatically not a sequel, but this rather differently offbeat picture earned a nomination for best documentary, even though it didn’t take home the prize last Sunday.

On one level, The Mole Agent is a real-life spy movie in which a private detective recruits Sergio Chamy, a charming 80-something widower, to infiltrate a nursing home where the detective’s client suspects her mother has been subject to elder abuse. This involves a crash course in surveillance techniques and technology for Chamy, whose sociability swiftly inserts him into a milieu where women outnumber men by ten to one.


Alberdi’s production crew filmed the entire work, with permission (but perhaps some deception), at the Hogar de Ancianos San Francisco in the Santiago suburb of El Monte, in an area I’ve visited as a lesser-known wine region.  The finished film is an outgrowth of what was originally a more general focus on Chile’s aging population—by the end of this decade, it could be Latin America’s fastest-aging country, but that’s not what foreign tourists see.


With some minor shortcomings, the Hogar de Ancianos appears to be a well-kept facility, with comfortable accommodations and pleasant gardens, that provides attentive services to its residents. Chamy eventually frustrates his handler by insisting that there is no abuse but, in the end, he concludes that loneliness and familial neglect are major issues that don’t get the attention they deserve. When the popular Chamy finally departs the home, the result is more like a feel-good comedy than an exposé.  In fact, it hardly feels like a documentary at all, and Alberti has stated that there’s interest in doing a fictional version—which she herself won’t do because she’s too invested in the one she’s just finished.

El Agente Topo is available for streaming on Hulu (with English-language subtitles, free trial available). 

Thursday, April 15, 2021

A Long Petal of the Sea (Book Review)

In 1939, as the Spanish Civil War wound down, thousands of refugees fled across the border into France—which then confined tens of thousands in a deplorable detention camp at d'Argelès-sur-Mer. In partial response, poet Pablo Neruda—also a diplomat—chartered the French cargo vessel Winnipeg to carry 2,200 Spanish refugees across the Atlantic and through the Panama Canal to his homeland of Chile where, despite isolated episodes of xenophobia, they integrated themselves into local society.

Chartered by Pablo Neruda, the French freighter Winnipeg carried Spanish refugees to Chile.

That’s the historical background for Isabel Allende’s latest novel, A Long Petal of the Sea, which becomes a tale of exile and adaptation that includes several larger-than-life figures, most notably Neruda himself but also the late President Salvador Allende (Isabel’s father’s cousin) and the notorious Augusto Pinochet (mentioned only in passing). Some characters are fictionalized versions of historical figures, such as pianist Roser Bruguera, clearly based on the painter Roser Bru (who turned 98 in February).

Isabel Allende's novel focuses on one exceptional refugee family.

Bruguera is one focus of a complex family story that melds with an equally complex political history that involves her going into exile, with her husband Víctor Dalmau, from Pinochet’s dictatorship. Allende is especially good at depicting the intrigues and obstacles her characters must navigate, including neighborhood informants, imprisonment, intra-familiar conflicts that tore many Chileans apart, and the disruptions of exile.

The first Spanish refugees would have passed through Arica's customs house (now a cultural center).

Being a geographer, I try to be alert to people and place, and I found one unfortunate error. I expected that, after the Winnipeg passed through the Panama Canal, it would go directly to Valparaíso, whence the refugees would proceed to Santiago and elsewhere in the densely populated heartland. As it happened, though, the ship made a stop in the northern port of Arica, a city I know well, where Chilean officials met the vessel and some of the passengers came ashore to stay.

The nitrate port of Pisagua was the northernmost point on Chile's contiguous rail network.

Allende, though, claims the officials arrived by train, but the northern Chilean railroad network, developed to help exploit the Atacama Desert’s nitrate deposits, never reached Arica—the most northerly major station was in the port of Iquique, roughly 200 km to the south (though there was a smaller station in the nitrate port of Pisagua, only about 125 km to the south). It might have been possible to reach Arica by rail at this time, but that would have involved a roundabout route via Buenos Aires and slow trains to northwestern Argentina and then Bolivia, where the Ferrocarril Arica-La Paz connected the two countries. Given the time, distances, and often contentious relations between Bolivia and Chile, it’s unlikely that anyone would have taken this route and, as it happens, there were flights from Santiago to Arica as early as 1929.

Oficina Chacabuco was the camp where Víctor Dalmau was presumably imprisoned. 

Allende describes, but does not specifically identify, the location where her protagonist Dalmau “ended up at a camp for saltpeter miners in the north that had been abandoned for decades and was now converted into a prison.” That description fits Oficina Chacabuco, about 100 km northeast of the port city of Antofagasta, which is now a national monument and in situ museum that I’ve visited several times. She also offers a plausible description of the Dalmaus’ ostensible rural retreat, outside Santiago, when they return from exile in Venezuela.


All in all, Allende’s novel is a rewarding read that provides an insider’s view of refugees, immigrants, and the contributions they make to their new countries—with lessons for countries still including Chile and, of course, the United States (where Allende now makes her home).



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