Chilean author Ariel Dorfman summarizes the dominant theme of his fine and varied literary life — the pain and regrets of those displaced from their homeland — in the perfectly functional but unremarkable docu portrait “A Promise to the Dead.” The decision by Canadian documaker Peter Raymont (“Shake Hands With the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire”) to show Dorfman returning to his beloved adopted home of Chile after years of political exile, and also have the writer function as an on-camera host, makes for a stilted if sincere political and emotional tour. Tube sales beckon after a serious fest life.
Perhaps best known as the author of “Death and the Maiden,” Dorfman was cultural advisor to Chilean President Salvador Allende, whose vision of revolutionary democratic socialism he shared. But before that, as he explains in his characteristically expressive, flawless English, he had grown up as the thoroughly Yank kid of leftist parents in New York City.
Stunned when his dad was blacklisted from his U.N. post and told to depart, young Dorfman developed a deeply mixed view of the U.S. — the land of opportunities and freedom (“It’s one of the few places where you really can be a dissident,” he says), but also a place capable of badly overreacting to its critics and enemies.
A follower of a peaceful but revolutionary movement that swept Allende into power in the early ’70s, Dorfman then experienced the blunt end of U.S. anti-communist and imperialist intentions in greater Latin America. Allende’s government was read by the Nixon presidency as a second communist bulwark in Latin America (after Castro’s Cuba) — even though, as Dorfman correctly notes, Allende was openly elected and reinforced democratic procedures.
The interesting passages in Raymont’s film follow Dorfman around the streets of Santiago as he recalls, with such friends as Queno Ahumada and Susana Weiner, the day-by-day activities of the Allende government and the pro-Allende street demonstrations. Dorfman’s fateful choices and pure luck enabled him to escape Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s brutal coup on Sept. 11, 1973, which led to the murders of thousands.
None of this, however, is especially powerful or visually expressive. The author is often placed in the position of talking to his compadres in a stiff manner — it’s meant to function as narration for the viewer, but drains the film of vitality. Pic’s shortcomings hint at what might be possible if one of the young, inventive new wave of Latin America documakers were to tackle Dorfman as a subject.
Production elements are clean and unfussy, if perhaps a little too slick for what’s on view.