Shipwrecked

(Los Naufragos)
(Chile Political Drama color)

Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 14, 1994–Miguel Littin's new political film Los Naufragos is an ambitious, though ultimately disappointing drama about the pervasive impact of Chile's l970s military dictatorship on its present-day society. A complex narrative structure, switching back and forth between past and present, along with an often tedious philosophical narration, result in a disjointed film that will intrigue viewers interested in Latin American cinema, but holds little commercial promise for other publics.

Set in the present, tale begins when Aron (Marcelo Romo), a sensitive middle-aged man, returns home after a two-decade exile in Europe. His journey takes the form of a painful soul-searching, motivated by his deeply felt need to better understand himself, his family, and his country. The psychological journey is framed as a mystery, as Aron tries to unveil the murder of his father and the disappearance of his brother (Bastian Bodenhofer).

To his dismay, Aron discovers that Chile's devastating political events have not only destroyed his family's unity and the personal happiness of its individual members, but have also left an open sore in the country's collective state of mind. It turns out that nobody is excited to see him, including his mother, who's on the verge of severe mental breakdown and hardly recognizes him.

Pic unfolds as a series of encounters, most of which end in a failure to communicate or to bridge past lives with the present. Among the more touching meetings are a touching one with Isol (Valentina Vargas), the woman who never stopped loving him, and a confrontation with Mola (Luis Alarcon), the brutally corrupt police officer–and family's ideological enemy–who was in charge of many murders.

Writer-director Littin evokes a tragic, often poetic, mood through a multi-layered maze of crucial childhood memories and painful nightmares, all indicating Chile's broken spirits and fragmented history. Chief problem is the tale's excessively multifarious structure, which precludes direct emotional involvement. There is too much narration, too many existential observations, too many biblical allegories, and too many cuts from present to past.

Slow and rather static pacing doesn't help either, though special kudos go to stylized lensing of Hans Burmann, whose nuanced lighting effectively captures the changing tone of the story. In the lead role, Romo's commanding presence and resounding elocution manages to overcome pic's segmental structure.

Though historical footage and flashbacks are used, Naufragos doesn't succeed in conveying Chile's political context in the l970s; vague generalities in the dialogue refer to the past as “chaos and confusion.” However, pic works better as an inner psychological exploration, stressing the need of every citizen to achieve continuity with the past on both personal and collective levels, even if the road is turbulent and painful.