The history of Chile from the early ‘70s through recent past provides more than enough fodder for your average left-leaning historical docudrama. It’s got the imposed rule of a fascistic military figure over a helpless population; decades of human rights abuse and oppressive capitalism; and, of course, the thing started it all: the illegal overthrow of a democratically elected leader. Director Florian Gallenberger’s Colonia focuses on an intriguingly obscure facet of Chilean history, one that unfolds around the time Gen. Augusto Pinochet overtook then-President Salvador Allende and asserted himself as the South American country’s new head honcho. But in doing so, the film trades in historical perspective for some indulgent aestheticizing, placing a hyperbolic frame around a moment in time that deserves sincerity.

Colonia begins as an utterly unconvincing “based on a true story” tale about oblivious Westerners residing in an exotic location during a turbulent time in history. The introductory sequence, featuring requisite archival footage of Chile circa 1973 to help orient unfamiliar viewers, gives way to Lena (Emma Watson), a flight attendant who goes to Santiago to visit her politically-minded boyfriend, Daniel (Daniel Brühl), who’s studying abroad and leading public rallies against Pinochet. The fictional twosome frolic and fool around and enjoy all the activism, but when the coup hits, Daniel is swooped up by Pinochet’s forces and taken to Colonia Dignidad, a clandestine compound where the general’s dissidents are tortured and killed out of the public eye.

On its surface, Colonia Dignidad seems to be an innocuous religious community of well-minded citizens; behind the scenes, it’s a different story. Leader and self-styled minister Paul Schafer (Michael Nyqvist) runs the community using extreme intimidation. He enforces strict and oppressive gender segregation, and if anyone has designs on leaving, the electric fence that surrounds the grounds proves dissuasive. Daniel survives his interrogation at Colonia, but to right his wrongs, he’s forced into brutal labor. Lena joins the flock in hopes of rescuing Daniel, and she’s quickly subjected to “Father” Schafer’s horrors. Women, in particular, are viciously subdued, and are subjected to extreme verbal and physical abuse during the “men’s gatherings” that take place at night. Headmistress Gisela (Richenda Carey) calls the women sluts and whores and nearly whips Lena to death when she begins to falter during intense field work; the pedophilic Schafer has his pick of young boys he’s had raised away from their biological parents. There are even ties to Nazism and talk of a massive cache of weaponry.

Whether anyone behind the film knows it or not, Colonia is a strange and ramshackle amalgamation of prestige drama, women-in-prison films and nunsploitation. It’s a rudimentary thriller that has the pictorial gloss of the average Oscar contender and the prickly sleaze of a grindhouse throwback. Even weirder are the times it resembles a Lifetime soap opera; despite their seemingly strict work regiments, Lena and Daniel find time to meet and plot their escape, and Watson and Brühl all but cringe through various scenes of intolerable contrivance and insufferable dialogue. When the whole thing explodes into a full-blown chase movie, Colonia starts to feel like an elaborate joke, one whose punchline comes in the form of a truly unlikely twist of fate.

It’s easy to laugh at a film like this, one whose comical stakes and complete aversion to narrative realism can result in giddiness and harmless fun. But then you’re left with the weight of the real-life horrors that took place at Villa Baviera, aka Colonia Dignidad—the admittedly absurd but nevertheless humorless acts of human violence, sadism, oppression and exploitation. Perhaps the least comical thing about Colonia’s many failings is the aforementioned opening credit sequence, and the extent to which the filmmakers seem to want the audience to forget about the kind of political corruption that fosters such unspeakable horror. Chile’s disappeared disappear once more, this time behind a veil of errant melodrama and tone-deaf filmmaking.

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