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Santa Fe Street

A personal tour through populist revolt, exile and major doses of survivor guilt.

Much more than simply an exploration of the Chilean junta’s legacy, “Santa Fe Street” is a personal tour through populist revolt, exile and major doses of survivor guilt, a therapy session for helmer Carmen Castillo to exorcise the ghosts of her past. By docu’s end it’s questionable whether she’s processed as much as she thinks she has, but that’s part of the fascination. Despite its long running time, this powerhouse doesn’t feel self-indulgent, thanks to the sheer rawness of the material. While length will hamper theatrical, this three-hankie nonfiction epic deserves widespread fest play.

Suffused with a combination of nostalgic longing and almost masochistic self-excoriation, docu looks at the events following the Sept. 11, 1973 military overthrow of Salvador Allende’s government through the testimony of those who survived. Though Castillo makes no bones about needing to film in order to work through her feelings, she realizes the task has a broader significance: since so much documentation was destroyed, and so many people murdered, the history of those times is possible only through oral reconstruction.

Castillo’s participation was intimate: a radical herself, she was the partner of Miguel Enriquez, secretary general of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR). In October 1974, pregnant with their third child, she was severely wounded in a massive siege at their house on Calle Santa Fe; Miguel was killed, and one month later, still recovering from injuries, she was forcibly put on a plane and sent into exile.

For Castillo, that house represented not simply death but the site of her greatest happiness, where she and Miguel worked for the cause they believed and started to raise a family despite the anxieties of being underground. Though she returned to Chile several times from her home in Paris before starting the docu, she realized that until she revisited the house and properly understood everything that happened that October day, she could never feel comfortable with her memories.

What she discovers — the kindness of locals, the neighbor who saved her — starts Castillo on her emotional journey of reconciliation with a country that tortured and killed its best and brightest. Interviews with colleagues from the time, edited with news footage from the ’70s, don’t linger on the torture but the dignity and satisfaction of working for a just cause. Included here is the most moving of her subjects, an elderly couple whose three sons were all killed, talking about their pride and anguish: no one can watch these two without dissolving into tears.

By the late ’70s the MIR’s leadership encouraged “Operation Return,” calling political exiles to sneak back into Chile and clandestinely continue their work in seeking Pinochet’s overthrow. It’s almost painful to watch Castillo interviewing these people, since her decision to remain in Paris increases her own guilt at not being among the ground troops risking their lives for freedom. As an international spokeswoman for the revolution, she would never have been able to stay undetected, but the underlying sense of self-reproach never quite leaves.

Which leads her to embrace too quickly the rhetoric of the new generation of leftist political agitators in Chile. She’s anxious to trace the legacy of her own generation, the ones who fought and died for reform, but in this eagerness she fails to understand that her vision is the more mature one. As her docu makes abundantly clear, though the ’70s radicals are a crushed generation, the survivors are now the elder statesmen of a cause that remains relevant.

With four credited d.p.s, extensive archival footage and a complex structure going from Castillo’s own experiences to others and then back again, it would be easy for pic to get lost in the jumble. Fortunately, Eva Feigeles-Aime’s superb editing juggles it all with confidence. Unnecessary music feels intrusive in first half hour but then becomes more organic.

Santa Fe Street

Chile/France/Belgium

Production: A Parox (Chile)/Les Films d'Ici (France)/Les Films de la Passerelle (Belgium)/L'Institut National de l'Audiovisuel, Love Streams Agnes b. Prods. production. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Sergio Gandara, Serge Lalou, Christine Pireaux, Christophe Barreyre, Sylvie Blum, Agnes b., Nadja Romain. Directed by Carmen Castillo.

Crew: Camera (color, b&w), Ned Burgess, Raphael O'Byrne, Sebastian Moreno, Arnaldo Rodriguez; editor, Eva Feigeles-Aime; music, Juan Carlos Zagal; sound (DTS), Jean-Jacques Quinet, Damien Defays, Boris Herrera, Andrei Carrasco. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 22, 2007. Running time: 163 MIN. (Spanish, French dialogue)

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