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Socialist Realism (El Realismo Socialista)

Unfinished satirical drama about convulsing Chilean workers on the eve of the 1973 military coup gets a new lease of life 50 years later - from the 41st Turin Film Festival

This is not to be confused with Social Realist cinema. Socialist Realism has nothing to do with the films of Ken Loach and Tony Richardson. Raúl Ruiz’s long-forgotten docu-fiction was rescued and reconstructed by his widow and long-time collaborator Valeria Sarmiento. The outcome is a caustic and dry look at the working class movements that permeated Chilean society on the eve of the military coup that changed the history of Chile and the world. The assassination of Salvador Allende (the first Marxist to be elected president in a liberal democracy in Latin America) on September 11th 1973 enabled the implementation of the most radical free market economics model on the planet (an open-air laboratory for Milton Friedman).

Entirely filmed in black and white, and loosely structured like a fly-on-the-wall type of documentary, the filmmaker captures working class representatives, settlement (particularly the Elmo Catalan Brigade) delegates, and trade union leaders as they discuss politics, haggle over banalities, engage in bizarre brinkmanship, and erupt in violence (not against the enemy, but instead against each other). They barely see a way of influencing Allende’s government. Even talking to the Labour and Finance Ministries are a long shot for these garrulous revolutionaries. What stands out the most in this testosterone-fuelled environment is their self-righteousness, factionalism and inability to compromise. Intellectuals are poets to the background, their voices barely discernible,

The rhetoric of these people is dotted with Marxist terminology. Yet our comrades lack cohesiveness and a sense of direction, instead parroting doctrine in a way not dissimilar to a Catholic priest delivering the Liturgy of the Eucharist .There was little unity in the Unidad Popular (the extremely broad coalition of left-leaning parties that elected Salvador Allende). These peoplen are prepared to die for their cause (something that comes full circle at the end of the movie), yet they have limited understand of what the battle might entail, and that their chances of succeeding are rather meagre. They conceal their names, opting instead for codenames such as “Lucho” (a nickname for “Luis” which also means “I fight”). They barely reveal the organisation of their affiliation. There is no real sense of freedom. An activist confesses that he wouldn’t want to live in Chile if the country was turned into one large Marxist settlement.

Ultimately, Socialist Realism reveals that the Marxist dream can easily descend into a bloody nightmare, and that Allende’s Chile was a far cry from the from the beacon of hope that the romantic left likes to think. It isn’t an endorsement of the American imperialism, either. The portrayal of the elites isn’t particularly rosey: the bourgeoisie are haughty and futile. This is a sardonic allegory of political doctrine gone unhinged, as well a tragic register of a society on the brink of social collapse. A fertile ground for the deeply authoritarian regime that took over and ruled the South American nation for nearly two decades.

Socialist Realism premiered at the 71st edition of the San Sebastian International Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. A reminder that cinema never dies: it is possible to resurrect a movie five decades later to great results. Also showing at the Turin Film Festival.

By Victor Fraga - 23-09-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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