Nanni Moretti is an Italian film director, producer, screenwriter and actor, probably best known for his films Caro diario and La stanza del figlio. He makes humorous and eccentric films and does not shy away from featuring his politically leftist views. His 2018 film, Santiago, Italia is neither eccentric nor humorous; in fact, it is a straightforward documentary. It does contain a political point of view, and it does give a unique angle to a well-known historical period in Chile’s past.
The film opens showing the Chilean people exuberant over the democratic election of their president Salvador Allende in 1970. He was a socialist politician and physician with progressive plans for free education for all children, the elimination of illiteracy, and a better life for all workers. Just three years later, joy turns to shock as radios announce the military takeover of the country. On September 11, the Chilean Air Force bombs the presidential palace, La Moneda, and Allende is killed…possibly by suicide or murder.
Through interviews with workers, professors, journalists, artisans, translators, diplomats and others, Moretti constructs a mosaic of accounts interwoven with archival footage of the times. The film recounts the transition from democracy to dictatorship, along with tearful memories of persecution and torture under the self-appointed president, Augusto Pinochet, who led the military junta. For the most part, Moretti is a discreet, off-camera interviewer. In one sequence, however, a former military officer who is serving a prison term complains that it is not an impartial interview. Moretti suddenly appears before the camera and sternly silences him saying, “But I am not impartial.”
The heart of the film occurs more than half way through. The focus shifts to the sprawling, beautiful Italian embassy in Santiago and the key role it played in protecting more than 250 people who sought refuge there. We hear about terrified Chileans making daring jumps over the two-meter high walls, of children thrown over the wall into the arms of someone on the other side. Nobody was turned away. While other embassies offered asylum in the beginning, none provided asylum to so many for so long.
The embassy also flew some of the refugees to Italy, where they were welcomed, given jobs and integrated into society. It is at this point in the film that you realize why many of these grey-haired Chileans spoke fluent Italian. And to the Italy of the 1970s, during their own country’s upheaval, they were forever grateful.
Many thanks to my friend, Beth Harris, who lives in New York City and directed me to this film that was shown online through “Film at Lincoln Center” during the pandemic quarantine.