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DOCUMENTARY REVIEW

‘My Imaginary Country’: watching Chile’s present overcome its past

Patricio Guzmán’s latest documentary will screen at the Brattle, in Cambridge, starting Friday.

From "My Imaginary Country."Icarus Films

Patricio Guzmán’s three-part “The Battle of Chile” (1975, 1976, 1979) is one of the great epic documentaries. In achievement no less than scale, it’s on the order of Chris Marker’s “A Grin Without a Cat” (1977) and Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” (1985).

Like Marker and Lanzmann, Guzmán is an essayist, an advocate. His work is predicated on point of view, and the point of view is a consistent questioning of the political status quo in Chile. Look for passion and artistry in his films, but not balance. That is certainly the case in his latest documentary, “My Imaginary Country.”

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“My Imaginary Country” screens at the Brattle Theatre, in Cambridge, Sept. 30-Oct. 6. On Oct. 1, the Brattle will also be showing all three parts of “The Battle of Chile.”

“The Battle of Chile” is about a defeat, the overthrow of President Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government by the Chilean military. “My Imaginary Country,” is about a victory and might be seen as a shining, optimistic coda to its mighty predecessor.

During the past decade, Guzmán directed three striking documentaries about his homeland: “Nostalgia for the Light” (2010), “The Pearl Button” (2015), and “The Cordillera of Dreams” (2019). Each is concise, lucid, often lyrical, and constantly alert to the pressure Chile’s past has continued to exert on its present.

“Nostalgia for the Light” is particularly remarkable, as it looks at two very different aspects of Chile’s Atacama Desert. It’s an ideal location for astronomical observation, because it’s so empty. For that same reason, it was an ideal location under the Pinochet dictatorship for concentration camps and the disposing of the bodies of junta opponents.

From "My Imaginary Country."Icarus Films

“My Imaginary Country” shows that pressure having a very different outcome. Guzmán’s looks at the massive protests in Chile in October 2019 and how they led to a constitutional assembly and the election last December of the current president, Gabriel Boric, a leftist in his mid-30s.

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Longstanding tensions from the aftermath of military rule came to a head that October with a rise in subway fares in the Chilean capital, Santiago. “I never expected this would be the spark that set off the flame,” Guzmán says in a voice-over. The fare hike was 30 pesos — 3 cents. Yet it epitomized the high-handedness of the government. Protests led to a state of emergency being declared. On Oct. 25, 1.2 million people, more than 6 percent of Chile’s population, took to the streets to protest. A comparable figure in the United States would 20.5 million people.

Guzmán uses footage of the protests, still photos, and interviews with various participants: a photographer, a medical worker, a journalist, a filmmaker, a physician, a political scientist, a quartet of poets. The sense of excitement and possibility they feel — even wonder — is exhilarating.

Women played a predominant role in the protests. The documentary ends with Boric’s victory speech, in which he says, “I would like to thank in particular the women of our republic.” Guzmán honors their participation with his choice of interviewees. All are female.

From "My Imaginary Country."Icarus Films

“There are flames that consume, and there are flames that nourish,” one of them says. “We’ll see what happens.” What happened was the government agreeing to a referendum on writing a new constitution.

A shot of a line of blue voting booths is beautiful in and of itself and that much more so for what it represents. Even supporters were stunned by the referendum’s margin of victory. Eighty percent of Chileans voted in its favor.

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Guzmán shows proceedings from the constitutional convention and interviews delegates (again, all female). “Everything indicates we have reached the end of an era,” says one of them, a student. Another, a chess player, marvels at the challenge of debating the new constitution: “It’s like playing a chess tournament, but every day.”

Note that she says “tournament,” not “match.” A match has only one outcome. A tournament has many. Earlier this month, the new constitution was defeated in a nationwide referendum, 62 percent to 38 percent. A new constitution still needs to be written. Perhaps Patricio Guzmán has the subject for his next film.

★★½

MY IMAGINARY COUNTRY

Written and directed by Patricio Guzmán. At Brattle. 83 minutes. Unrated. In Spanish, with subtitles.


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