The Pinochet military regime tries to turn former Allende government heavyweights into nameless prisoners in “Dawson Island 10,” a harrowing true story brought to the screen by vet Chilean director Miguel Littin. Repping Chile in this year’s foreign-language film Oscar derby, the handsomely drab, damp and desolate-looking pic stays too much within the confines of the prison-camp genre, though its finale is still moving. “Island” should have a less-than-insular fest life followed by bigscreen rollouts in arthouses, especially in Spanish-lingo territories.
Littin has entered the Oscar stakes twice before — in 1976 (for Mexico’s “Letters from Marusia”) and 1983 (for Nicaragua’s “Alsino and the Condor”). This is the first time he’s repping his home country.
Himself an exile after Pinochet toppled Allende’s Marxist-socialist government in 1973, the helmer has long been one of the most politically engaged filmmakers in Latin America. However, the tone of “Island” is closer to humanist documentary than sociopolitical pamphlet, as Littin lets the story speak for itself.
After the 1973 coup resulted in Allende’s suicide, the surviving Allende ministers and closest government collaborators were sent to a concentration camp on Dawson Island. The unwelcoming, isolated and sparsely populated isle northwest of Cape Horn — used by Littin for his shoot — effectively made them disappear from view.
On arriving, the men are assigned only the name of their barracks and a number, with former mining minister Sergio Bitar (Benjamin Vicuna) receiving the titular “Dawson Island 10.” Though the film is nominally based on the Bitar’s own book, “Isla 10,” he’s only a bit player here: Littin prefers an overview of what the men went through, breaking up their experiences into little scenes that cover many prisoners, guards and events.
This approach, reinforced by the guards’ habit of referring to everyone by number rather than by name, highlights the way in which the system tried to stamp out any individuality. But without anyone to identify with, it also makes it harder for auds to buy into the story emotionally. The attempted escapes, “happy” Christmas celebrations, desire for news from home and thawing relationships with some of the guards feel like the stuff of countless other such movies.
The only strands that stand out are those involving a prisoner with medical knowledge (Horacio Videla) who finds himself in a moral quagmire when treating a hurt jailer (there’s no doctor on the island), and an elderly father and his grown son (Jose Martin, Matias Vega) who provide the heartbreaking final scene.
With desaturated, handheld lensing that often stays close to the characters, and occasionally switches to black-and-white, Littin expertly captures the disorientation and anxiety of the prisoners. Raw perfs from the ensemble augment the docu feel, while the violin-and-piano score is appropriately restrained. Other tech credits are top-notch.