Under-the-radar streaming options include two very different films dealing with Chilean history. One is visually amazing; the other tells a terrific little-known story.
First up is “The Wolf House,” a 73-minute rush of dark, trippy, politically themed animation opening Friday virtually at the Roxie; visit Roxie.com.
This feature debut of Chilean writer-directors Cristobal Leon and Joaquin Cocina (Alejandra Moffat shares the screenplay credit) is a Big Bad Wolf fairy tale rooted in real-life horror. Presented in stop-motion form, with papier-mache figures, the movie brings to mind the cinema of Czech animator-puppeteer Jan Svankmajer and the paintings of the 20th-century surrealists, while its Chilean DNA and stunning creativity make it distinctive in its own right.
Some brief background: The “colony” in the story refers to Colonia Dignidad, the Chile-based German community led by convicted pedophile and former Nazi Paul Schafer. For more than three decades, beginning in the early 1960s, child abuse, murder and torture occurred at the site. Victims included opponents of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The movie’s prologue resembles a propaganda film. An unreliable narrator (voiced by Rainer Krause) characterizes the colony, where honey is produced, as a utopia of contented workers.
He begins spinning a dark tale about a disobedient girl, named Maria (Amalia Kassai), who lets three little pigs escape from their pen. Before she can be punished, Maria escapes into the woods, where she’s pursued by a wolf in addition to her colony superiors.
She takes shelter in a house, at which point the picture shifts into animation mode, and from painting-like 2D into 3D.
In the house, Maria declines mentally, and it is through her deluded eyes that the filmmakers depict her environment and predicament.
Central to her story is her reunion with two of the three missing piglets. They soon transform into her human children, sort of.
Later, perhaps influenced by her disturbing upbringing, Maria remakes these “children” into blonder kids.
Unfortunately, her parenting methods echo the harsh and indoctrinating approaches that she, herself, experienced at the colony. This sets the stage for disaster.
The wolf, meanwhile, represented by a sinister eye, watches everything.
The filmmakers flood the screen with images that move and shape-shift — everything from windows and furniture to birds, bugs and clothing. It’s more than a viewer can process.
Hazy storytelling, meanwhile, weakens the effect of the narrative. The film is less dramatically substantial and emotionally satisfying than traumatic-history-based animated fare like the Khmer Rouge-themed “Funan” or the Israeli documentary “Waltz With Bashir.”
But its visual strengths more than compensate for shortages of clarity or depth. Surreal and unsettling animated imagery, in states of change — dripping, disintegrating, reforming, morphing — which the filmmakers deliver strikingly and vigorously, distinguish the movie.
A large head acquires a body. A magical dress usurps drabber attire. Candles light themselves. Alluding, perhaps, to Schafer’s past, a swastika appears briefly on a wall, before becoming a window.
Presenting the action as a single-sequence shot results in an immediate, urgent feel.
It all adds up to a barely full-length but singularly arresting film that establishes its creators as notable international talents and illustrates the possibilities and pleasures of non-Hollywood adult-geared animation.
The Wolf House
Written by: Cristobal Leon, Joaquin Cocina, Alejandra Moffat
Directed by: Cristobal Leon, Joaquin Cocina
Running time: 1 hour, 13 minutes
The brutal coup that replaced democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende with right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1973 has received plenty of onscreen attention, but “Santiago, Chile,” Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti’s new documentary about the overthrow (also opening Friday at the Roxie’s virtual cinema) features a story few have heard before.
It’s an inspiring one: After the coup, the Italian embassy in the Chilean capital helped anti-Pinochet dissidents escape persecution by providing them with shelter and transport to Italy. Interviewed by Moretti nearly 50 years later, some of them vividly and movingly recall those events.
Moretti is known for his autobiographical narrative films, which tend to be proudly leftist, blatantly personal and comic. In this documentary, he subdues (but by no means eliminates) those qualities.
Instead, using the standard methods of talking heads and archival footage, he straightforwardly tells the story of the popular Allende, whose actions included making education free, and of the U.S.-backed coup, during which the Chilean air force bombed the nation’s own presidential palace. The footage, even if you’ve previously seen it, is shocking.
Moretti also looks at the brutal Pinochet regime, whose secret police tortured and killed opponents.
Escape came by way of the Italian embassy, where about 250 dissidents received shelter after they jumped over a wall onto its grounds. The Italians helped the Chileans relocate to Italy, where they were given money and jobs. Many remained there permanently.
This isn’t a signature film by Moretti, whose credits include the first-person seriocomedy “Diario Caro” and the award-winning grief drama “The Son’s Room.” Structurally, it’s far from innovative.
But Moretti has created an eloquent canvas from his subjects’ experiences and the history surrounding them.
He also injects a wee bit of his familiar biased self into the picture frame. At one point, the clearly pro-Allende filmmaker, otherwise unseen, steps in front of the lens and declares, “I’m not impartial,” to the pro-coup subject he’s interviewing.
The primary talking heads — journalists, filmmakers, diplomats, academics — are an informative, insightful, entertaining bunch as they recall everything from the euphoric Allende years to the torture they withstood to everyday life in the embassy and the Marxism some espoused.
One woman describes how her pregnant torturer ordered her to knit her a baby cardigan.
Kids at the embassy played a variation on cops and robbers: “cops and refugees.”
Many praise Italy’s welcoming treatment of them. One woman likens Chile under Pinochet to a wicked stepfather and Italy to a mother.
Sadder is the observation that such warmth and kindness exist no longer.
Certainly, Italy isn’t the only country where pastures have become meaner in these times of refugee crises, when humanitarianism is urgently needed. In Moretti’s deft hands, this seemingly small film delivers in multiple arenas: as a historical document, a condemnation of fascism, a journey of hope, and a universal call for compassion.
Starring: Carmen Castillo, Patricio Guzman, Miguel Littin, Marcia Scantlebury
Written and directed by: Nanni Moretti
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Before Cristobal Leon and Joaquin Cocina were making an impression, Stephen and Timothy Quay were crafting spectacularly creative animated films featuring puppets and stop-motion animation. Masters of their craft, the Quays have earned a cult following over the years, and their surreal and macabre works have found a serious fan in Hollywood director Christopher Nolan, who, five years ago, made a short film to honor the brothers. Short Films by the Quay Brothers including “Street of Crocodiles” (a gothic classic), “The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer,” “This Unnameable Little Broom,” and others stream May 14 on the Criterion Channel at criterioncollection.com.