Family members were exiled, supporters assassinated and the record expunged after Chilean president Salvador Allende was overthrown by a military coup d’etat in 1973, leaving a hole in his country’s collective memory. More than 40 years later, Marcia Tambutti A.’s natural curiosity about the grandfather she never knew serves as a unique opportunity for contemporary Chileans — and outsiders, too — to rediscover the deposed leader in “Beyond My Grandfather Allende.” More diary than documentary, the too-casual result aims to reconstruct some picture of Allende as a husband and father, featuring reluctant interviews with those who survived him, including his widow, and rare family photos that reveal a side of Allende only his inner circle might have seen before.
Cinema is an imperfect medium in which to present such an investigation, if only because helmer Marcia Tambutti A. (where the “A” stands for “Allende”) uncovers so little, therefore shifting the focus to the search itself. That tactic lends itself more naturally to the printed memoir, where the author’s voice is central. Here, we see and hear plenty of the director, but she comes across more like a nosy child than an eloquent narrator, making it hard to imagine non-festival audiences being patient enough to wade through what feels like an overly invasive homevideo.
In journalism, when sources prove either uncooperative or unavailable (Allende died of apparent suicide in 1973, and his family doesn’t seem especially willing to reopen that painful chapter now), reporters typically resort to what is known as a “write-around,” making do with whatever access then can get, and then being as formally inventive as possible to make the profile interesting. For cinematic inspiration, the director might have turned to any number of innovative family memoirs, among them Jonathan Caouette’s “Tarnation” and Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell,” but instead defaults to a relatively mundane, straightforward approach.
The director’s key witness is her grandmother, Hortensia Bussi de Allende, affectionately known as “Tencha” to her people. The helmer recognizes the limited time she has to document Tencha’s memories of being married to the region’s first democratically elected Marxist president. In some interviews, Tencha appears dressed up and dignified, while in others, the director brings the camera bedside and plies her with personal questions about Allende’s extramarital affairs. “I want to know how you were as a family when he was alive,” she asks — a request that seems perfectly reasonable and, frankly, not altogether interesting.
Though the helmer’s cousins share her curiosity, the older generation seems determined to put this sordid past behind them, and in that divide, we sense how the country as a whole must feel: With enough distance, interest in Allende has returned among younger Chileans. In 2011, his coffin was exhumed and his corpse examined to determine an official cause of death, which had never previously been confirmed as suicide. (For years, his fellow Marxist and ally Fidel Castro spun a myth that Allende had died fighting in his La Moneda mansion, draped in a Cuban flag.)
These details interest Allende’s granddaughter, but for different reasons. She is still haunted by the death of her aunt Beatriz Allende, or “Tati,” who committed suicide four years after Allende’s ouster while in Cuba. Obviously, projects like this double as a form of therapy, though we shouldn’t underestimate the degree to which the country itself might benefit from such a session: It’s no small trauma to see one’s president overthrown and replaced with a 17-year fascist dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet, and perhaps this documentary may serve as another small step in healing the national character.
Still, while the film tactfully steers clear of politics — this despite the inherently political nature of its subject — one hopes for something a bit more revealing to emerge, the way the superficially similar docu “Sins of My Father” shed fresh light on the figure of Pablo Escobar from his son’s perspective. Here, Marcia Tambutti A. seems most delighted to uncover a candid photo of her grandfather playing peteca at the beach, looking fit and relaxed in his bathing suit.
Often, instead of being allowed to study the photos themselves, we get scenes in which the helmer pores over piles of them, stashed for years in a half-forgotten suitcase — the documentary equivalent of a YouTube reaction video, where people film themselves experiencing something for the first time. It’s nice to see Allende’s granddaughter coming to terms with her family’s past, one supposes, but it hardly lives up to the film’s play-on-words title (in Spanish, “allende” means “beyond”), which promises to offer something more than the ex-president’s public image.