04 May 2011
'La colonia penal,' a Film by Raoul Ruiz
The journalist challenges a soldier (who may also be a writer) about a series of improbable coincidences between disaster and atrocity stories reported first from other Latin American countries, then mysteriously repeated or exaggerated in Captiva. She finds that her baggage has been searched by the soldiers and when she protests to the President, he accuses her of having already written lies about the country. The President tries to shoot himself, but is restrained by the troops; he addresses a gathering of distinguished visitors to thank them for their support. Soon after, while broadcasting to the island by radio, he is assassinated. The journalist inspects a number of bodies in the morgue and assures a soldier that the grant requested should soon come through. In a closing voice-over, she says that her report was favourable and was accepted by a majority of press agencies.
The sequence of the the night-time prison visit, where some form of torture seems to be in progress (off-screen), ends with an enquiry as to whether she is impressed, which is probably only comprehensible if one already appreciates that she is in search of the quintessential Latin American news stories of repression and atrocity. One deduces that the soldier to whom she complains about the plagiarised Captiva news must be a correspondent with some responsibility for 'producing' the island's staple export. But then the converstation takes a more precisely ironic turn when the journalist claims to have just witnessed a scene straight out of one of the soldier's novels; to which he replies that this is just what 'Garcia Marquez and that other lad Fuentes did.' Magic realism indeed! The general strategy of 'The Penal Colony' is in fact common to all of Ruiz's Chilean films: deceptively casual reportage of the fantastic seen in everyday terms. In his first feature, 'Three Sad Tigers,' violence and self-deception were shown as elements in the everyday life of many Chilean marginals. For the film that came immediately after, 'Nobody Said Anything,' a story by Max Beerbohm about a pact with the devil served to structure a study of a group of minor intellectuals 'who live in their own reality and believe that it is in fact Chile.'
[This review was written by Ian Christie under the title 'La colonia penal (The Penal Colony) (1971)' and was originally published in Monthly Film Bulletin, 52: 612/613 (1985), p. 18. An extract is available online at Rouge Press. Information about the director Raoul Ruiz is available on Mubi and the film is briefly mentioned in South American Cinema: A Critical Filmography by Tim Barnard (University of Texas Press, 1996), pp. 224-5.]