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Thomas Piketty, superstar; bearing witness with the Andes

Thomas PikettyJANERIK HENRIKSSON/Associated Press

The most improbable film adaptation of the 21st century (so far) is of the most discussed work of social science of the 21st century (so far): Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” In that 2013 book, Piketty, a French economist, describes the history of economic inequality in the West from the 18th century to the present.

Making any film from a 700-page book is a challenge. When that 700-page book consists largely of statistics and economic analysis, it becomes less challenge than stunt, or at least that’s the case with Justin Pemberton’s documentary. It can be streamed via the Coolidge Corner’s Virtual Screening Room, starting May 3. Go to coolidge.org.


The best thing in the documentary is the least filmic: the author’s talking-head appearances. Piketty, who speaks in French, with subtitles, is calm, lucid, teacherly. In none of those respects does he have much in common with the rest of the documentary, which is slick, superficial, and smugly incoherent.

“Capital” begins with 1989 and the fall of the Iron Curtain. It then offers a roughly chronological economic history of Western Europe and the United States, starting around 1700. That history consists of a grab bag of the English class system, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the emergence of status anxiety and the economic impact of Christmas (!), imperialism, labor strife, World War I, the Great Depression . . . and up to today, with the rise of China (not necessarily a bad thing), housing inequality, tax havens, and roboticization (entirely bad things).

This is all quite breathless and more than a little confused. For events predating 1900, the documentary offers clips from fictional films. Admittedly, this adds to visual interest but it also seems a bit . . . dubious . . . as regards accuracy. In a particularly choice instance, the 2012 version of “Les Misérables” helps illustrate the French Revolution. This is odd insofar as the story begins almost three decades after the revolution.


Along with those movie clips, we get archival film, news footage, and jazzed-up versions of the sort of collages Terry Gilliam used to do for “Monty Python.” Beside Piketty, we hear from academics, activists, journalists, and persons of indeterminate expertise. One such is identified as a “Global Political Risk Adviser.” Maybe that’s what it says on his LinkedIn profile but what about his 1040? (You know he doesn’t file a 1040A.) Or there’s the Columbia economic historian who looks like he’s 16, which isn’t his fault, and sounds like he’s 14, which is. Describing the 1970s he says, “So you had this period of, like, high inflation and low growth, so that’s why it got called, like, stagflation.” Right, and “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” is, like, a mess.

From "The Cordillera of Dreams"Icarus Films

Patricio Guzmán’s “The Cordillera of Dreams” is also a documentary and it shares the left-wing politics of “Capital,” but any resemblance ends there. Formally, it is austere, even chaste, as well as deeply beautiful and very deeply felt. It can be streamed via the Brattle Theatre’s virtual screening room. Go to www.brattlefilm.org.

Will any movie this year have a more beautiful title? It refers to the Andes, which form the eastern border of Guzmán’s native Chile. He is best-known for his epic three-part documentary from the 1970s, “The Battle of Chile,” about the overthrow of the democratically elected president Salvador Allende and its aftermath.


“Cordillera” concludes another trilogy about Chile, which began with “Nostalgia for the Light” (2010) and “The Pearl Button” (2015). All three are essayistic documentaries that weave together the Chilean environment with personal histories and memories of the Pinochet dictatorship. “Nostalgia” is defined by air and light, “Button” by the ocean, and “Cordillera,” of course, by land.

The images of the Andes are stunningly beautiful without ever seeming merely pretty or decorative. The scenes of Santiago, the Chilean capital, are very handsome, too. The mountains matter to Guzmán, as they perhaps do not to his countrymen. The tendency of Chileans to avert their eyes from the cordillera, both figuratively and literally, puzzles him. In contradistinction to that blinkeredness is the forthrightness, political as well as topographic, of the four people we hear from at length: two sculptors, a novelist, and a cinematographer who made it his special task to document life under the dictatorship.

“I believe the mountains are a witness,” Guzmán says in a voiceover. That capacity may be what puts off his countrymen. It enraptures Guzmán. It certainly should, if only owing to a kind of kinship. He, too, is a witness, as well as one of the world’s finest working filmmakers.



Directed by Justin Pemberton. Written by Pemberton, Matthew Metcalfe, and Thomas Piketty. Based on the book by Piketty. Streaming via the Coolidge Corner, at coolidge.org. 93 minutes. Unrated.




Written and directed by Patricio Guzmán. Streaming via the Brattle, at www.brattlefilm. org. 85 minutes. Unrated. In Spanish, with subtitles.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.