Another début film, Diablada is a fiction feature based on the true story of a serial killer who raped and murdered young women, mainly teenagers between 1998 and 2001 in the Chilean region of Alto Hospicio in the North of the country. Although the names of the characters and other details have been changed, the film sticks fairly closely to the narrative of the real events. I found the film impressive in many of the aspects of its presentation but somewhat baffled by the overall approach of the filmmakers writer Omar Saavedra Santis and director Álvaro Muñoz.
The film begins by introducing a small group of characters in a small desert town close to the coast. These include a single parent father Andres (Daniel Candia) and his young teenage daughter Nene as well as a female police officer Rosaura (Catalina Saavedra) who is badly treated by both her managers and her male colleagues. My first thought was that I was watching something like a Chilean version of a Nordic Noir crime thriller. Here is a crime story in which the crimes appear to be happening in a way that exposes a range of serious social and political problems in the society. The central point is that although a significant number of teenage girls have gone missing over the last few weeks and months, the local police have made no real attempt to find them and have assumed that the girls have left the town to seek more ‘excitement’ over the border in Bolivia. The point is made repeatedly that the police will not really do anything for the poor, but will act swiftly if the local wealthy people are threatened by minor crimes. My second thought was that the opening reminded me a little of Australian crime fictions involving Indigenous Australian communities such as in Mystery Road film and TV series. I’m assuming that the local community depicted in Alto Hospicio has a significant indigenous population and that their marginalisation by the authorities is a political issue. The film’s title refers to a traditional dance performed mainly in Bolivia and Peru but which appears also to have developed in Northern Chile. The dance is woven into the narrative because Nene performs in the local troupe, but wearing a costume that her father believes to be for a male rather than female role, thus linking to the gender discourse in the narrative.
As the narrative progresses, more familiar genre elements are introduced, including a new young detective who arrives in the region. He is welcomed by the local wealthy ‘boss’ character but there are signs that he might not buy in to the local male dominance and abuse of women. He also introduces more modern policing methods. When Nene goes missing like the other girls, Andres joins up with Rosaura in an attempt to unite the mothers of the missing girls and to act as an amateur detective team as well as agitating for the police to do more. The problem with the film is that all the details of the community and the introduction of the characters take up most of the running time. There is no time to see how the investigators find the killer, denying the audience the resolution of what had originally been introduced as a conventional crime story. I don’t have a problem with a lack of resolution and I can see that the social/political issues are the most important part of the film. But presumably the local Chilean audience know the ending anyway – the killer was eventually arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. Another film that is worth considering here is Bong Joon-Ho’s Memories of Murder (South Korea 2003) with the same mix of politics and incompetent policing. Again this was a well-known serial killer case that had already been adapted several times. Bong’s film is much longer and more complex and at the time of the film’s production the crimes from 1986 had still not been solved.
We might ask why Muñoz and Santis didn’t opt for a more straightforward genre narrative or a documentary reconstruction of the crimes and the eventual investigation, arrest and conviction. I can only think that Muñoz and his cinematographer Alvaro Cortés wished to experiment with the presentation of the landscape and the characters. The landscape of the desert and the simple wooden houses are carefully presented in widescreen and there are occasional ‘arty’ shots of isolated features which are effective in themselves, but slow down the narrative drive. There are also some fantasy/dream sequences which don’t seem signalled. I wasn’t sure if I understood a couple of sequences. It may be that the intention was to pose the social/political questions in a way that would provoke discussion. I’d love to know how the film has been received in Chile (and Venezuela) if it has been shown there. As a genre film, Diablada doesn’t focus directly on the actual killings. In that sense it isn’t exploitative but there are a couple of scenes which feature the victims in ways that are quite shocking. One of the few reviews available accuses the film of a lack of humanity towards the mothers. I’m not sure I agree but I can see that there are reasons to make that charge.
I must commend the leading players Daniel Candia and Catalina Saavedra and the production team, but I do feel in the end that something is missing. Diablada shows again at HOME, Manchester on Sunday 22nd August at 13.45.