Colonia tells the true story of two bright young things – Lufthansa airhostess Lena (Emma Watson) and Photographer and activist Daniel (Daniel Bruhl), who become embroiled in the aftermath of Pinochet’s military coup in Santiago, Chile, in 1973.
The picture begins with the lovely Lena visiting her German activist boyfriend during a week off. The young couple swan about the city attending various political rallies and wilfully inhaling the bittersweet scent of revolution that has overcome Santiago.
All is well, until a military coup, headed by the notorious Colonel Pinochet, begins to clamp down heavily on foreigners and any perceived sympathisers of the Colonel’s rivals. Daniel is captured and tortured in the most horrendous fashion. Lena discovers that he has been sent to the Colonia Dignidad: a compound run as a religious cult, which doubles as a torture barracks for the Chilean secret police. Lena vows to rescue Daniel from the compound, run by the despicably cruel and sadistic pederast Paul Schafer (Michael Nyqvist, not to be confused with the band leader from Tonight with David Letterman).
This German production tells an interesting and important story. The Colonia Dignidad was one of the most curious and bizarre kinds of prisons the world has never really known. The cult members are either brainwashed by the sadistically sinister Schafer (who prefers his flock to refer to him as Pius), or are political prisoners that have been irreparably damaged by the DINA, the Chilean secret police (who Schafer’s flock shared the compound with).
The Colonia is a grim place. The population of the compound is gender segregated, which deeply hampers Lena’s attempt to rescue Daniel, who happens to be feigning idiocy to aid his escape attempt. Lena must endure repeated humiliation and degradation at the hands of Pius and a horrid female overseer who makes Nurse Ratched look like a sweet old lady.
What this picture boils down to is a good old fashioned prison escape film. The Colonia is like The Hotel California: You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. The weird, minimalist prison setting is quite unsettling. Michael Nyqvist is chilling as the deeply unpleasant cult leader, who does a nice sideline in providing weapons and poison gas to the ruling government. With his long greasy grey mane, he resembles the villain trapped in the portrait from Ghostbusters 2. His presence propels this film up a notch from the run of the mill prison escape caper film.
Dealing with such controversial subject matter, the picture is quite difficult to watch at times. At one pivotal moment, Daniel Bruhl’s face looks nearly as bad as it did when he portrayed Nicky Lauda after his crash scene in Rush. His performance is strong and convincing as a man who is forced to feign serious mental illness in order to plan his escape. Emma Watson however, does not have a strong chemistry with Mr. Bruhl. This is not a major obstacle as they are apart for most of the picture. It is a brave choice for her as an actress as it demands quite a lot but I am afraid she doesn’t quite deliver. As lovely and magnetic a screen presence as she is, I do believe she has been miscast here.
For a film based on real events and packed with incident, there is a distinct lack of tension. The ending pays homage to better thrillers like The Last King Of Scotland and Argo but without the required tension needed to encourage the viewer to invest on an emotional level.
The period detail is rendered successfully. The costumes, sets and period vehicles used ably create a mood that captures the era. Director Florian Gallenberger does his best, but his direction never rises above pedestrian. This important true story is however, delivered with sincerity and a sense of verisimilitude. Not great, but not bad.