Mixing bodice-ripping romance with anti-capitalist drama, “Underground” makes hesitant steps toward rejuvenating the politicized Chilean cinema. Although not in the same class as Miguel Littin’s bold social critiques, pic brings the horrors endured by the coal miners in the Lota region vividly to life. Director Marcelo Ferrari’s adaptation of famed national author Baldomero Lillo’s collection of stories, although uneven, drew intense, built-in interest on its local October 2003 release that has made it the third top-grosser in Chilean B.O. history. The reach to the larger Latin American market, however, will be patchy at best.
Despite its deeply Chilean subject, “Underground” is pure Emile Zola; it’s hardly a coincidence that Zola’s masterpiece, “Germinal,” was a huge influence on Lillo. The Lillo character here (Cristian Chaparro) briefly narrates at pic’s start and finish, commenting on the need to bring the workers’ plight to public attention, but mainly scribbles away in the background as other figures take over.
When Virginia (Paulina Galvez), daughter of mine owner Luis (Hector Noguera), returns from her teacher’s training, her mother has died from tuberculosis and her godmother, Isidora (Consuelo Holzapfel), is in charge of their palatial home. Virginia’s father is drawn to new-fangled gadgets such as the electric light bulb, leaving his brutally efficient number two man, a gringo named Mr. Davis (Ernesto Malbran), as the mine workers’ enforcer in the pits.
In this starkly class-divided world, the workers and their families live in rickety wood shacks, with the women praying each day that their men will re-emerge alive from the mines. But though pit explosions are commonplace, even vet agitator Jonas (Patricio Bunster) can’t organize his fellow miners, especially Fernando (Francisco Reyes), an aloof, often drunk former flame of Virginia’s.
Compelled to stay and carry on her mother’s duties as teacher in the town’s one-room schoolhouse, Virginia is the prototypical heroine of socially committed 19th century tomes. She’s beautiful, she’s in quiet lust for hunky Fernando, she’s the perfect schoolmarm, and, as a rich gal with a brain, she’s angry at the terrible inequities between the bosses and the workers. An incident involving Fernando’s best friend, finally gets Fernando into action-but not before he renews his passionate relationship with the raven-haired Virginia in images straight from the cover of a Barbara Cartland romance novel.
Even the crusty, aging Davis has his own bedroom flings with Ana (Berta Lasala), a saucy hooker with a heart who sympathizes with the miners.
Screenwriters Jose Manuel Fernandez, Carlos Doria and Jaime Sepulveda have difficulty weaving Lillo’s stories into a coherent whole. Their reliance — as well as Ferrari’s — on fairly crude dramatic strokes to patch things together and speed things along is less than elegant.
The scenario is ambitious in its panoramic view of the country’s class structure and larger forces at work, while the production sets new standards in Chile for period re-creation. Alternating cutting between the owner’s mansion and the pits recalls not only Zola, but also the generals’ palace and soldiers’ trenches in “Paths of Glory.”
A more experienced cast might bring needed nuances to the characters. Leading lady Galvez struggles here to carry movie on her own, while her romantic interest Reyes underplays to the point where it’s hard to care for him.