Colonia is a film about a fictional people living through a real historical nightmare. In 1973, General Augusto Pinochet led a military coup in Chile and began detaining, torturing, and worse to people who had been loyalists to the deposed President Salvador Allende. Lena (Emma Watson) is a German flight attendant who is in a relationship with photographer and Allende activist, Daniel (Daniel Bruhl). Both end up taken away by Pinochet’s men and imprisoned at Colonia Dignidad, a work camp and cult run by lay preacher Paul Schäfer (Michael Nyqvist). They endure psychological and physical torture as they struggle to find a way out of this living hell.
I am always eager to learn more history about regions of the world I’m foggy on. There’s just so much and our experience in the United States is very narrow. Paul Schäfer was a truly horrible human being who ran Colonia Dignidad for decades before Pinochet was toppled and he was finally brought to justice. It was discovered that Schäfer had been molesting young boys put into his care at the work camp, which the film hints at. The other members of the colony had their connections to the outside world removed and were even drugged to remove their sexual drives.
Colonia is a film about a fascinating topic. But it is an incredible failure in presenting a consistent tone and focus. The story begins as a period piece with a romance overlain. It’s a little cliche at moments and I didn’t feel a lot of chemistry between the two leads. Not sure if it was the actors or the director, but it never feels believable. Then reality sets in hard with Pinochet’s coup and the film starts to take on a more serious focus on the weight of the history happening around the characters. The film appears to be retaining that tone as Lena and Daniel end up at Colonia. However, when Lena has some real moments of peril we have convenient moments of plot occur to spare her the brutality. Almost every character around her is brutalized to a horrific degree, but through sheer luck, she escapes it. The tone undercuts the film again in the third act as the story devolves into a pretty simple race against time, thriller.
The film never felt like it handled its source material with the weight it deserved and came across more like a Lifetime Channel film than something of substance. The film wants to be a romance, it wants to be a documentation of a historical atrocity, and it wants to be a political thriller. It ends up being none of these things and feels embarrassing in many moments. Nyqvist is the highlight as Schäfer but still could have benefited from more development. Colonia does inspire me to want to find a documentary on this subject because I know there is so much more to this very important story.