Audiences could be forgiven for thinking Chilean cinema is dark, even a bit twisted.
Could it be the reflection of the long legacy of 17 years of dictatorship? The country's 1973 coup and General Augusto Pinochet's subsequent rule deeply affected the Chilean psyche, and provided a dark backdrop for a wealth of narratives across mediums, notably director Pablo Larrain's cinematic trilogy set within those years: 2008's Tony Manero, 2010's Post Mortem and 2012's No.
But living under the shadow of Pinochet also paralyzed the development of the country's arts sectors for decades, including the film industry. "I wonder how wonderful our cinematography would be if the dictatorship never happened," Larrain says over Skype from Paris, where he is cutting his next film, Neruda. "There was a freeze for 20 years. So it took time for us to grow again – and kind of restart."
If Chilean filmmakers felt they had some catching up to do, though, they have given it a tremendous go, with Larrain leading the pack of award-winning, recognized directors, screenwriters and actors to come out of the country in the past decade. Larrain's latest, The Club, opens at the Bell Lightbox Friday, a year after it took home the Grand Jury Prize at 2015's Berlin International Film Festival and enjoyed a run on the festival circuit, including this past fall's Toronto International Film Festival.
The Golden Globe-nominated drama is Larrain's first feature since his dictatorship-era trilogy, and moves far beyond those dark, political days. But by taking on the controversial topic of abusive priests, the film may, in fact, be even more sinister. For Larrain, there may be something more than a military dictatorship pushing the country's cinema over to the dark side. It's a theme the country's top artists seemingly can't escape.
Chilean documentary legend Patricio Guzman, for instance, also tackles the heavy themes of memory, guilt and victimhood in his work, most notably 2010's Nostalgia for the Light and 2015's The Pearl Button (not to mention his unparalleled three-part series on the coup itself, The Battle of Chile). Even a grandfather of Chilean cinema, the still-revered cult master Alejandro Jodorowsky, was producing strange, surreal work years before Salvador Allende came under siege in the 1970s.
The dramatic landscape of the country – ripe for contrast and emotion – might have something to do with the cinematic movement, too, Larrain explains. "Geography is how societies are also shaped. And we have very big mountains, the Andes, on one side, which is sort of like a curtain in a way, which give us a lot of isolation, and [with the ocean] we have a very open, endless space in the other side. And to me it's a very interesting and important psychological element."
To its testament, as the country's film industry grows, it diversifies. Take young screenwriter Sebastian Silva, who made his mark with the 2009 dark comedy The Maid, and whose latest, the quirky Nasty Baby, stars Kristen Wiig and is set far from Chile in New York. Likewise, the 2013 film Gloria, directed by Sebastian Lelio, was another dark comedy, but lighthearted and far from political.
"Today in Chile, there are people doing all kinds of movies – it's really incredible," Larrain says. "Comedies, romantic comedies, martial-art movies, political movies, religious movies, movies that tend to be more pure entertainment.
"I think we are all learning how to make more and better movies, and that, I guess, is the key."
Post Mortem: Pablo Larrain's Chile Trilogy runs Feb. 19 to 23 at the Bell Lightbox (tiff.net).