Set in a Chile under the brutal regime of dictator Augusto Pinochet, Manuela Martelli weaves a masterful thriller in her directorial debut, 1976. Beginning with an unsettling sequence in which a woman is “taken away” offscreen by the authorities, the danger of the situation is underscored from the offset. Aside from sporadic checkpoints and hints about the regime’s cruelty, though, the violence is kept lurking in the background in favour of telling a more contained tale centred around Carmen (played wonderfully by Aline Küppenheim), a former member of the Red Cross who’s preoccupied with renovating her family’s beach house. When she’s asked by a priest to use her medical know-how to treat a wounded man (Nicolás Sepúlveda) in secret, she finds herself involved in the ongoing political conflict as paranoia and fear take over her life.
What’s immediately striking about Martelli’s debut is how sublimely in embodies the style and tone of classic 70s thrillers like Coppola’s The Conversation or Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. Each frame is skilfully crafted to capture the feel of the setting alongside Carmen’s growing anxiety as she becomes more involved with helping the injured man. Equally as impressive is the score by Mariá Portugal, which would likewise feel right at home in an old-school thriller. Whooshing synths, foreboding brass and ominous woodwinds instantly grab the attention and colour the soundscape with a deep sense of unease that accompanies the rising tension.
Restraint is everything when it comes to executing the suspense. Not only does one never see the notorious dictator on-screen (only his voice is heard on the television), but the script is also in no rush to get to the immediate threat. By delivering this high-stakes narrative on such a small scale, Martelli creates a powerfully human snapshot of the era in which the danger can be anywhere and anyone. And with Küppenheim’s pitch-perfect performance, viewers will experience every close shave alongside her.
An edge-of-your-seat thriller that flawlessly captures the look and feel of its setting while maintaining taut suspense throughout, 1976 marks a bold debut from Manuela Martelli.
1976 does not have a UK release date yet.
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