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If you were to take a guess, or a even a bet as a risk-taker, on which film might be the bigger U.S. premiere next to the opening and closing nights of the 26th Cinequest Film Festival, between the James Franco vehicle, The Adderall Diaries and the Emma Watson led Colonia, premiering two-days apart from each other, your money might be 2 to 1 on Watson’s film as the one people would be most eager to catch. Of course if you attended either premiere, let alone the opening and closing nights (and a couple in between), you might actually be hard-pressed to prove which was the more popular one. The fact of the matter is that this year, Cinequest broke attendance records yet again and nearly every premiere had quite a number of attendees. However, for the sake of this discussion, we will venture a sentiment that Ms. Emma Watson alone is who people came to see. This sentiment is probably true seeing as how Watson is probably the best known face of the proceedings.
Continuing to shed the skin of her formative years as Harry Potter’s brainy, beautiful co-conspirator Hermione Granger, Watson stars as Lena, a flight attendant who stops in to Chile to visit her artist/activist boyfriend Daniel (Daniel Brühl) for a lovely few days before going back to work. During their brief time of romantic bliss, a military coup is executed, resulting in many deaths and the capture of Daniel and Lena. Soon, the couple is separated. Daniel is whisked away to an unknown destination, while Lena is left to wander and pick up the pieces. Wasting no time, she sets to work on trying to find Daniel, eventually being led to a peaceful, religious agricultural community that works to be closer to God. It is called Colonia Dignidad. However, she learns very quickly that this “peaceful place” is anything but, and that the world of nightmares and hidden horrors is closer to hell than the vision of a heavenly haven it makes itself out to be.
Based on the very true events of the 1973 Chilean military coup, this film brings the weight from the moment the coup breaks out until the very end. The film takes hold of you and does not let go. A bleak existence is depicted here, people who join up with the community are essentially prisoners, never allowed to leave. The men, women and children live separately seldom allowed to meet. Telephones, calendars and television is banned as is sex, with drugs being forced upon them to reduced their sexual urges. Children were molested and people were tortured and killed in many cases. The community is governed by a twisted version of religion, and very, very few have ever escaped and lived to tell the tale of their experiences. This is what Lena is up against as she plunges into the depths to rescue her boyfriend.
All of the atrocities can be attributed to one man, Paul Schäfer (Michael Nyqvist), the founder and sadistic leader of the cult. He ruled with an iron fist and did not take lightly to any form of disrespect or disobedience. Nyqvist plays Schäfer almost scientifically. There is just the right level of menace throughout. His grand and sweeping speeches are performed well enough to suggest this man’s level of insanity and corruptness. Daniel Brühl is solid support here as he tries to stay alive in the midst of the darkest time he has ever faced. All that said, Emma Watson clearly is the standout here and rightfully so. Good or bad, she owns this movie and manages to turn in a great, emotionally competent and compelling performance.
Much of the film is spent on the Colonia compound where the colors feel slightly muted, underscoring the bleakness of the reality that the inhabitants live in. There are few moments of visual beauty that can be found, such as a brief, thoughtful sequence in a vast, tall field, or even weirdly, the inside of a large moodily lit barn with mounds of potatoes and many stacks of hay. As seemingly boring a set piece like that could be, it does manage to add to the character of the proceedings. The film’s musical score by Fernando Velásquez is effective, though at times it does veer close to feeling manipulative, which you never really want to be made aware of in a film. In a lot of cases, if the music feels heavy-handed, that can have the potential to make the moment it is meant to accompany feel inauthentic. Thankfully for the most part, that isn’t the case here.
Director Florian Gallenberger offers a solid film, his direction does not feel tight, in fact it almost feels as if Gallenberger took a big step back so that his actors would have space to move freely. The film moves freely as well and feels at times like a genre mash-up. A romantic thriller drama, if you will. If you enjoy edge-of-your-seat thrills, suspense and a whole bunch of Emma Watson, then this film might be what you’re looking for. If however, you’re looking for something more thoughtful, you might be out of luck.