El Chacal De Nahueltoro & Chile’s Guilty Verdict

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El Chacal De Nahueltoro (1969) is a docudrama that takes its inspiration from an actual murder case that ignited a huge debate over the death penalty in Chile in 1960. The film follows Jose, an illiterate peasant, who drunkenly kills a woman and her five children and is subsequently caught and executed.

In 1960, Chile was rocked by the story of a gruesome murder. News reports across the country detailed how this unknown drifter killed six people in cold blood. It was a story that was entirely Chilean. Jorge “Jose” Del Carmen Valenzuela was shaped by the country’s history and institutions. He was a symptom of the greater societal issues indigenous to Chile. For that reason, he represented the perfect opportunity for director Miguel Littín to set himself apart and create a cinema that was not born of American or European narrative traditions. He would tell a Chilean story with his own Chilean structure by mixing in documentary elements with real interviews and voice-over from Jose as well as dramatic reenactments. Littín viewed the American film industry with disdain and as an outspoken leftist, he viewed many of Chile’s institutions and governments the same way. 

Miguel Littín

Littín later became an ardent supporter of Salvador Allende and was even denounced by his neighbor soon after Pinochet took power. A man who always saw film as a political tool, he was arrested at the office of Chile Films. He was temporarily freed but could not return home and had to hide in a series of safe houses for a month until he was forced into exile and put on a list of Chilean nationals who were permanently banned from the country. He continued to work across Latin America and even directed the Nicaraguan Sandinistas’ Oscar-nominated film, Alsino & the Condor

These leftist credentials would be cemented during his period of exile but were already recognized when he made El Chacal De Nahueltoro. Using a unique structure and perspective, Littín doesn’t make a run-of-the-mill film noir about a lone killer, but a tragedy about society’s failures. He establishes this from the very beginning. The violence we see is not from Jose’s hand but from a crowd of journalists, police, and civilians who manhandle, abuse, and scream at this visibly frightened man. They are the aggressors not him. Littín establishes that through much of this man’s life, he was a victim. We first flashback to his childhood where he details how he was forced to leave his home at the age of 8 and was sent to a religious institution that pretended to teach him about the benevolence of Jesus Christ and instead taught him about the cruelty of hard labor.

El Chacal De Nahueltoro

Going from job to job, he steals and wanders around the country, trying to connect to others but eventually isolates himself further. When he decides to return home to his mother, he finds that he has a new half-brother and half-sister and he is no longer welcome. In one of the more poignant sequences in the film, Jose drunkenly trips over a train track in the middle of the night, quite clearly drinking himself to death. Meanwhile, in the background music can be heard. Littín cuts to a party with middle-class patrons. His isolation is not personal but indicative of a larger class struggle.

By the time we see Jose go through with his heartless crime, we have already built up a considerable amount of sympathy for him and blame for the institutions that ignored him. This chronology is important for the audience to understand him in the face of a crime that seems so motiveless with each death making less sense than the last. In fact, for all the sympathy Littín allows, he also offers little reassurance or explanation when it comes to the murders. The inconsistencies of Jose’s confession are not probed or whitewashed. We don’t know why Jose claims he killed one of the children with a stick even though there are clear signs of strangulation. We also don’t know why he began his spree and what the mother, Rosa, could have said to him to set him off. He is an increasingly perplexing protagonist. When he wakes from his murderous daze, he lovingly caresses the children he killed, seeming to express remorse, but upon hearing the baby cry, he goes to crush its head with his foot. 

El Chacal De Nahueltoro

The only answer Littín can provide as to why is that Chile’s own society has very opposing views on death, violence, and morality. In fact, it’s hard to say who was more violent to Rosa: Jose or the state. Before she met Jose, Rosa’s life was already marked by violence. Her husband was stabbed to death, leaving her children to grow up fast. Because her husband can no longer work, she is violently evicted by policemen who hold her down while they throw her things. The state’s crimes against her don’t end. When they catch Jose, he is forced to return the money he stole from Rosa to them, making them thieves as well. The state’s actions are the same, but they are given different names. Jose may be a heartless murderer, but the man in charge of killing him is simply referred to as a seasoned captain with a lot of practice and experience in executions. Even when they are trying to rehabilitate Jose, they offer him a muddled picture of death. In his first real class, they emphasize the heroic death of Arturo Prat, a naval officer killed during the War of the Pacific. They repeat that death brought him glory, but what did it bring Rosa? There’s no pretty explanation for her.

These perverted ideologies are directly responsible for Rosa’s murder. Littín even uses a POV shot for the murders as well as some of the crowd scenes during Jose’s perp walk, making the audience culpable. Not only do we play a part in the crime but in the animalistic mob mentality afterward. It’s only when Jose leaves society and enters prison that he is freed from its metaphorical shackles. He finally goes to school and enjoys community with the prison soccer team. Even the prison priest feels he is remorseful and reformed. It is of no avail, however. Jose still gets the death penalty. Asking for anything different from the Chilean government is laughable. When Jose wonders aloud if there’s any possibility he will be pardoned, Littín cuts back to military officers preparing with target practice. Of course not.

El Chacal De Nahueltoro

Even with a clean shave and haircut, his last walk to his execution looks the same as his perp walk. There is still an angry crowd around him and although they are now yelling at the officers and not him, the effect looks and feels the same. Jose is forced to wear a blindfold for his execution even though he doesn’t want to because it would traumatize the people shooting him. Jose has to live and die with the guilt of his murder but these military men should not have to. Jose dies as he lives: alone. While the crowd engulfs the military personnel, Jose is silently carted up in a box. Out of sight and out of mind, society can pretend he never existed and never face their own guilty conscience.

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