Film Review | The Colony

Middlebrow movies try to have the cake and eat it too, which all too frequently results in dilution and disappointment

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
19 July 2016, 9:15am
Revolutionary road: Emma Watson and Daniel Bruhl are caught between a rock and a hard place in Pinochet’s Chile
Revolutionary road: Emma Watson and Daniel Bruhl are caught between a rock and a hard place in Pinochet’s Chile
Sadly, oppression is the only real constant in human history. It’s the basis for all conflicts – national and intimate – and most of our laws are crafted to try and circumvent it in some way.

So it’s hardly surprising that films about oppression are a popular and consistent feature of our annual cinematic roster. In one corner, you have pop culture behemoths like The Hunger Games franchise grafting on a hero’s journey to the struggle, and offering up a hard-won but ultimately redemptive narrative whose aim is to entertain and inspire. In another, you’ve got the arthouse offerings – the likes of which we’ve witnessed during the Valletta Film Festival – which frame all forms of oppression as being unbeatable, and attempt to squeeze dramatic leverage and poignancy out of how us mere mortals contend with that cruel fact of human existence. 

Then you’ve got something in between. The middlebrow contenders. Usually based on true, harrowing historical events, and usually international co-productions with a clutch of nationally varied – but still generally recognizable – actors in their arena, these movies try to have the cake and eat it too. An endeavour which, for various reasons, all too frequently results in dilution and disappointment. And although its dramatic beats are in the right place and its intentions cannot be faulted, Florian Gallenberger’s The Colony doesn’t quite manage to evade the pitfalls of this particular mode of storytelling.

Creeper preacher: Michael Nyqvist thrills to the part of former Nazi religious cult leader Paul Schafer with disturbing gusto
Creeper preacher: Michael Nyqvist thrills to the part of former Nazi religious cult leader Paul Schafer with disturbing gusto
Based on a shocking historical episode that somehow manages to combine the effects of two horrible regimes in one fell swoop, The Colony takes its cue from the religious sect Colonia Dignitas, founded in 1960s Chile by former Nazi Corporal turned Baptist preacher Paul Schafer – here played by Michael Nyqvist (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). Under the guise of religious teaching, the Colony served as a dumping ground for political activists opposing the Pinochet regime, while also helping to arm their militia. 

We discover its inner workings after a German student, Daniel (Daniel Bruhl) who’s helping out with the pro-Allende resistance in Chile is taken in by the government as Pinochet’s coup seizes the country. His distraught girlfriend Lena (Emma Watson) sees no option but to infiltrate the Colony posing as a newly-minted nun. But once there, she has to negotiate through a strictly segregated male-female mini-society, and stay out of the hawkish glare of Gisela (Richenda Carey) if her mission is to be of any success. Meanwhile, Daniel is tortured into seeming mental retardation after he refuses to give the names of his revolutionary collaborators. But we soon find out that this is all an act, and there’s a glimmer of hope for the lovers’ plan to reunite and escape the tightly secured facility.

For all the horror it portrays – and Gallenberger is adept at some of the subtler moments of creepiness from Schafer – the film remains a coddling romance drama lodged in the middle of an otherwise compelling set-up. With its pretty leads and polished but uninspiring photography, it remains commendable for bringing the Colonia to public attention, but something of a lame duck on the actual cinematic stakes.

Further reading is encouraged.

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Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...