Memory is crucial to the understanding of a culture precisely because it indicates collective desires, needs and self-definitions. We need not to ask whether a memory is true but rather what its telling reveals about how the past effects the present.” (1)

A wallet, a watch, a presidential sash and a small red book signalling socialist allegiance are laid out on a wooden table as a pair of hands quietly examines each item one by one. A sombre narration, the voice of documentarian Patricio Guzmán, explains that these are the only things that were found on the body of Salvador Allende on the day of his death on “that other September 11” in 1973. This was the day when the world’s first democratically elected socialist president took his own life in the midst of a military coup, a coup that would install General Augusto Pinochet as dictator and begin 17 years of violent cleansing of the Chilean left. Through Salvador Allende (2004) Guzmán diagnoses his homeland in terms of collective amnesia brought about by both the trauma of Pinochet’s brutality and the need for absolution from the guilt that these horrors could have been prevented. Guzmán’s cinematic response when returning to Chile after three decades of exile attempts to construct both a eulogy for and an autopsy of Allende and his short-lived revolution, examining, mourning and quietly reflecting on the rise and fall of a movement he documented in “real time” almost 30 years before in one of the most vital political documentaries ever made, his 262-minute La batalla da Chile (The Battle of Chile, 1975-79).

A common criticism of Guzmán’s otherwise well-received 2004 film accuses it of lacking in historical detail or analysis, particularly when it comes to the perceived failings of his subject. But these criticisms misread the purpose of the film. Guzmán assumes through omission and his own narration that most have seen his mammoth dissection of Allende’s presidency and demise and so feels no need to reproduce his argument again for the uninitiated. The Battle of Chile’s terrific urgency is replaced by an even-tempered, more reflective methodology that painstakingly and fondly constructs a portrait of a leftist hero and, like all eulogies, is fiercely subjective, intimate and underscored by a romantic melancholy. Nowhere is this rendering more exquisite than in the sequence in which, via point-of-view framing, we are taken through a photo album buried by Allende’s nanny in the aftermath of the coup and dug up 20 years later; the camera scans the softness of the worn and faded pages and lingers on the places where the image has been completely obscured by the conditions of its burial, mirroring Allende’s own role as the structuring absence of Guzmán’s filmic excavation.

The album is a means through which his nanny’s daughter and childhood friend is introduced, a figure who is returned to throughout the film to provide snippets of “el Chico’s” early home life. Through her we learn of his love of empanadas and long and beautiful speeches and his desire to stay connected to his familial and community roots long after his political career took him onto the world stage. The other interviewees enlisted provide impressionistic glimpses of his political outlook; the mayor of his birthplace, Valparaiso, recalls long discussions of art and philosophy, and attempts to explain Allende’s desire for a democratic revolution. His wife and daughters discuss his dedication and boundless energy. These testimonials are intercut with lively newsreel footage of his campaign speeches and cheering, waving crowds woven under layers of Chilean folk music, while the utopia continually evoked by the interviewees is recalled as a tangible possibility as Allende’s plans for his country take shape.

Guzmán is careful, however, not to let his eulogy slide into redemptive territory. There is a darker side to the collective amnesia that he addresses and he structures his homage in a way that makes sure that the monument to his hero is placed on ground where the failings of the president’s supporters can be tentatively laid out. And so, counter to the traditional order of bereavement proceedings, a celebratory eulogy slowly morphs into a speculative post-mortem. Guzmán’s cutting remains at the same methodical pace throughout; this is not a documentary of concise or forceful argument. The footage taken by Guzmán and his team at the time of the coup is reintroduced; the sound of a heart beating is layered onto the grainy imagery as Allende’s final moments are relived. The subdued tone and pace, along with the content of both the personal and analytical reflections, offer more of a nudge to the sleeping ideological fervour of pre-Pinochet days than they are a slap to the consciences of those who ended it. The smoke billowing from La Mondea, the presidential palace, and the last words of Allende himself thread their way through the final interviews and roundtable discussions amongst leftists young and old about what could have been done to prevent a coup that everyone saw coming, throwing up a number of conclusions, none of them satisfying. There is enough indication in Guzmán’s voiceover and his considered presence in interviews to suggest that long years in exile have somewhat dampened the urgency characteristic of his work in the 1970s, but the melancholy that replaces it has a powerful resonance whose questioning echoes may still be heard and discussed for another 30 years. In one of the final interviews Guzmán asks a young railway worker why he thinks the Chilean people failed to protect their elected leader. “They lacked the conviction of their beliefs”, he states simply. Guzmán softly replies, “Perhaps you’re right”.

Through Salvador Allende we are offered witness to both the process and objects of Chilean history. Guzmán’s deliberate meandering through the emotional and political remnants of his country’s ultimately failed struggle towards a socialist utopia is both a concrete record of a left that once was and a deliberate interjection into a void of trauma-induced forgetting. The eulogistic character of his work provides a privileged glimpse into the nexus between individual and collective memories as he uses his own mourning, for both a man and an ideology, to catalyse the political and cultural reinvigoration of the country he was denied for so long.


1. Marita Sturken, Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the Aids Epidemic and the Politics of Remembering, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1997, p. 1.

Salvador Allende (2004 Belgium/Chile/France/Germany/Spain/Mexico 100 mins)

Prod Co: JBA Production Prod: Jacques Bidou Dir, Scr, Narr: Patricio Guzmán Phot: Patricio Guzmán, Julia Muñoz Ed: Claudio Martinez Mus: Jorge Arriagada

About The Author

Louise Sheedy is the program coordinator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and a PhD candidate in Cinema Studies at the University of Melbourne. Her thesis examines the interplay of politics and aesthetics in critical documentary on the Vietnam War.

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