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article imageReview: TIFF 2015: ‘Colonia’ is a battle of wills with no clear winners Special

By Sarah Gopaul     Sep 18, 2015 in Entertainment
A very determined Emma Watson infiltrates a strict Chilean cult to rescue her boyfriend in ‘Colonia,’ which premiered at TIFF.
Secret government operations serve many purposes and generally exist under the guise of providing protection to the country and its citizens. However, the means by which this security is attained often ranges from controversial to indefensible. Organized networks of terror and interrogation are not unheard of, but the arrangement exposed in Chile several decades ago is one of the most unsettling systems to come to light. Colonia goes behind the electrified fences to illustrate the oppression wielded in the name of God and country.
Daniel (Daniel Brühl) is a young idealist from Germany who joins the revolutionary efforts in Chile to keep President Allende in power. However, during a visit from his girlfriend, Lena (Emma Watson), there is a military coup and all of Allende’s followers are threatened with imprisonment or death. When Daniel is unceremoniously arrested, Lena is the only one committed to helping him. She discovers he’s been taken to Colonia Dignidad (Dignity Colony), a secret station for prisoners in the South that fronts as a religious and agricultural commune. Lena makes the daring decision to voluntarily join the camp with no way of knowing if Daniel is even alive. After months of planning, the two are finally reunited — but escaping is a much more difficult task.
Until the cult is introduced, the narrative is relatively typical of a country being overtaken by an oppressive regime. The earlier demonstrations are replaced by police raids; cheers of solidarity become cries of fear; and the unifying drumbeat is traded for the boom of executions. The events unfold very quickly until its energy is ground to a halt by the repressive environment of Colonia. There, cruelty thrusts the narrative forward as each act motivates the protagonists to breakout.
The sect is led by another German ex-pat who goes by Pious (Michael Nyqvist). Hiding behind religious rationales, he uses the camp to satisfy his taboo sexual desires and craving for power. By separating the men, women and children, he’s able to ensure absolute control over his followers who are blind to his corruption. The psychological and physical torment inflicted by Pious and his overseers is excruciating. While the camera doesn’t necessarily close-in on the worst offenses, there’s no question regarding the physical abuse that was exacted on everyone imprisoned at the commune.
It’s difficult to decipher which events portrayed are drawn from real incidents and which are fictionalized to create a comprehensive narrative. For example, the harrowing escape that is conspired against from all angles is an inspired ending, but hard to know if it actually unfolded that way. Nonetheless, the truth of the transgressions committed by the government and Pious are much less ambiguous. Each new piece of the puzzle that’s revealed connects to the bigger picture and makes the rest of the story clearer.
The core cast are excellent choices for their respective parts. Brühl is no stranger to politically charged narratives. Daniel wears his idealism on his sleeve to the point that his need for justice repeatedly puts them in danger. Watson is entirely convincing as the heroine coming to the rescue of her true love, which is a fittingly feminist take on a traditional narrative. Lena risks everything to save Daniel from an unknown fate, repeatedly putting her life in danger to get one step closer to her goal. The resolve Watson radiates is formidable. Nyqvist’s commitment to playing the cruel authoritarian is most believable, which makes it doubly disturbing.
The film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Don’t miss the rest of our TIFF 2015 coverage.
Director: Florian Gallenberger
Starring: Emma Watson, Daniel Brühl and Michael Nyqvist
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