Although this film is no longer in the cinema, I downloaded and watched it the other evening, the premise – based on real life events – fascinating and a prompt for reflection. It's set in Chile in the 1970s during the rule of the fascist dictator, Augusto Pinochet, and focuses on a mysterious cult led by a former Nazi émigré. Already then, we have a crucible of horror within a crucible of horror, and this is both the strength and weakness of the film. It effectively has too much to cover; the horrors of Pinochet's military dictatorship we see at the outset, eg when protestors against the military putsch were rounded up in the national football stadium, to be pointed out by hooded collaborators. These victims were then taken away for torture and/or execution. The story then takes us to the aforementioned cult, led by a messianic guru called Paul Schafer, whose sadism and child-abuse are contained within the Pinochet-approved compound of his forest dwelling. These are historical backdrops with such emotional intensity it would be difficult for any director to pull off the combined effect with any justice.
What we get, regardless, is a love story between a protestor dragged off to the cult, and the lover who goes after him. It is this personal story that, unfortunately, fails to convince entirely. Emma Watson (Hermione in Harry Potter) and Daniel Bruhl (Niki Lauda in Rush) are likeable enough, but rely too often on a series of lucky coincidences as they find one another and then attempt to break out of the camp. At one point, they stumble over a hidden access to a secret tunnel in a barn of hay, a discovery that proves crucial to later events. At other times, situations come together that rely less on good planning than on luck or the unrealistic reactions of camp organizers or officials.Yet I was able to accept these leaps of disbelief for what they were: the director's attempt to move things along, and keep the fast-paced tension going. Within the formidable arc of the film, perhaps such character fortune was unavoidable. Colonia would certainly have benefitted from more focus on life in the cult, especially the strain on the relationship between the two leads. Watson's character never wavers in her love for Bruhl's, despite the radical change in his public demeanour as he feigns permanent brain damage following torture by electric shock. She sees him at these initial stages in the camp cheering at the beating of a female and at the visit of military officials; her subsequent doubt and regret would have increased both the tension and plausibility for me, but the film doesn't explore such areas. Essentially, it is a film that focuses on bringing together these irrepressible lovers. It is therefore more a love story than an exploration of the psychological effects of being a cult member, forced or otherwise. But this remains an interesting, provocative film and a reminder of the less altruistic side of American foreign policy, not least the consequences for innocent people when such dictatorships as Pinochet's are supported.