London 2022

1976 review – taut women-centric thriller pops with intrigue and colour

Actor-turned-director Manuela Martelli’s brilliant character study immerses viewers in the paranoid political landscape of 1970s Chile

In the opening scene of 1976, a woman’s revolution is painted quietly, without dialogue. Carmen (Aline Küppenheim) is shopping for a very particular reddish-pink paint to decorate her newly refurbished summer house. She’s impeccably put together in an all-navy skirt suit with matching sapphire accessories. Then, as she’s swatching samples, a drop of rose paint falls in slow motion onto her midnight blue heels, framed with an intensely dramatic close-up like a splatter of blood. Simultaneously, there is a commotion outside as a citizen falls into the hands of president Augusto Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship, the first hint at the violence which looms in Carmen’s periphery.

The apprehensive mood of Pinochet’s regime in the titular year underscores actor-turned-director Manuela Martelli’s character study of a woman whose life irretrievably changes as a result of her nursing nature. In the coastal Chilean town of Las Cruces, pot of paint in hand, Carmen arrives at her seaside home to be handed the responsibility of Elías (Nicolás Sepúlveda), a young “common criminal” with a leg bullet wound, by the local priest (Hugo Medina).

It doesn’t take long for the realisation to dawn that Elías is evading Pinochet’s regime and Carmen’s fingerprints are all over clandestine aid for the supposed enemy. By assisting this young man, Carmen betrays her privileged position in society, culture, and her family, but her existence as a wealthy woman lets her pass undetected. With omnipresent threats circulating – the ultimatum of being “thrown into the ocean” is a terrifying euphemism as bodies wash up on the shore – Carmen’s elegance is frazzled with her paranoia seeping into every frame.

This worried obsession also materialises in Mariá Portugal’s arresting sound design. The eerie, anxiety-inducing soundtrack is realised with odd-timed whistles and brilliantly disturbing electronic waves that spike with Carmen’s racing heartbeat, creating claustrophobia even in wide shots. Martelli also toys with expectation, the seaside house location that would usually be blanketed in sunlight draped with a chilling atmosphere for the winter holidays. 1976 is full of these subtle disparities. Accents of red and blue are a stark contrast to the beige interiority of Carmen’s existence. The ocean’s cool blues are immediately juxtaposed with a stream of vibrant blood being poured down a sink, echoing Carmen’s blue neck scarf later swapped for a red headscarf. Martelli’s unsettling visual language even manages to make a weeping wound look like a watercolour on a fleshy canvas.

Later, multiple versions of Carmen pop up in her bedroom dresser, the rearview mirror of her car, and in unmoving bodies of water as she tries to keep a handle on her own snowballing fabrications. Her mission to save Elías may be a core motivation, but her reasoning behind these dangerous acts is less developed. Though intentions are occasionally uninformed, Küppenheim’s masterful performance perfectly conveys brewing nerves with the subtle sharpening of female intuition – when cars tailgate her and a passer-by glances for a second too long, her shoulders tense and pupils flit in silent, instinctual panic. Martelli nails the delivery of this story through an intrinsically female gaze.

What could be a familial melodrama becomes a taut political thriller. While the view from the coastal summer home is beautiful, Martelli grants a rare reverse shot revealing the house’s front as essentially one big glass wall. The moment illustrates both Carmen’s biggest fear and Martelli’s cinematic approach: every action is detailedly observed in this patriarchal society and all moves are intimately tracked by a lens that looks with real curiosity.

1976 was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2022. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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