A foreign journalist arrives on a small Pacific island 200 miles off the coast of South America. Once a leper colony, the island was later transformed into a prison and then, under U.N. mandate, made into an independent republic. Yet despite democratic structures, the inhabitants–who speak a strange dialect composed of Spanish and English–still obey the old prison rules. After sending back detailed accounts of the torture and repression seen everywhere, the journalist realizes that she”s fallen into the trap created for her by the islanders: lacking natural resources, the island”s main export is news. The clearest anticipation of Ruiz”s later European work, The Penal Colony is a powerful document of the tensions and contradictions in Chile in the months before Allende”s electoral victory.
A journalist arrives on the Latin American island of Captiva, where a dictatorial President rules capriciously over a society that seems to consist mainly of males in military uniform, speaking a polyglot language. We learn from a voice-over that the island was first turned into a penal colony by Ecuador in the late nineteenth century, then occupied by the United States from 1899-1920, until it achieved independence and once again became a penal colony. In 1954, the United Nations assumed responsibility for it as an experimental society and it has been independent since [sic] 1972. The President is evasive and apparently anxious about the report that the journalist will deliver. At her hotel, she is importuned by a poet, who is exposed as a pickpocket by the ever-present troops. The President’s behaviour becomes even more eccentric, and he vehemently denies that there is any torture on the island. A party of troops serenades the journalist before she is unceremoniously bundled off to the prison to witness scenes of punishment. A native woman recites a bizarre fable about a man who is bewitched, drowned and reborn in Europe as a little girl, only to have ‘her’ husband murder her daughter, at which point the whole continent sinks into the sea. The journalist challenges a soldier (who may also be a writer) about a series of improbable coincidences between disaster and atrocity stories reported first from other Latin American countries, then mysteriously repeated or exaggerated in Captiva. She finds that her baggage has been searched by the soldiers and when she protests to the President, he accuses her of having already written lies about the country. The President tries to shoot himself, but is restrained by the troops; he addresses a gathering of distinguished visitors to thank them for their support. Soon after, while broadcasting to the island by radio, he is assassinated. The journalist inspects a number of bodies in the morgue and assures a soldier that the grant requested should soon come through. In a closing voice-over, she says that her report was favourable and was accepted by a majority of press agencies.
Like a message in a bottle from Allende’s Chile, The Penal Colony reaches Britain after a series of adventures too complex to detail here, in a version that lacks all credit titles and which may be some seven minutes short. In this state, which is almost certainly the best achievable, it is not a film to be approached without some contextual information. Even more than most of Ruiz’s work, it stands in a perversely oblique relationship to its ostensible script and subject. It is certainly doubtful whether the innocent spectator would deduce from a single viewing that the basic industry of Captiva is the manufacture of news on behalf of international press agencies. Yet only this realisation lends coherence and satirical point to the otherwise erratic sequence of events and encounters that constitute the main body of the film. It explains the ambiguity of the scenes of torture and execution, which appear both playful and savage, and the range of stereotyped attitudes struck by Luis Alarcon’s President for the benefit of the visiting journalist, a declared “specialist in underdeveloped countries”.
The sequence of the the night-time prison visit, where some form of torture seems to be in progress (off-screen), ends with an enquiry as to whether she is impressed, which is probably only comprehensible if one already appreciates that she is in search of the quintessential Latin American news stories of repression and atrocity. One deduces that the soldier to whom she complains about the plagiarised Captiva news must be a correspondent with some responsibility for ‘producing’ the island’s staple export. But then the converstation takes a more precisely ironic turn when the journalist claims to have just witnessed a scene straight out of one of the soldier’s novels; to which he replies that this is just what “Garcia Marquez and that other lad Fuentes did”. Magic realism indeed! The general strategy of The Penal Colony is in fact common to all of Ruiz’s Chilean films: deceptively casual reportage of the fantastic seen in everyday terms. In his first feature, Three Sad Tigers, violence and self-deception were shown as elements in the everyday life of many Chilean marginals. For the film that came immediately after, Nobody Said Anything, a story by Max Beerbohm about a pact with the devil served to structure a study of a group of minor intellectuals “who live in their own reality and believe that it is in fact Chile.”
Here the starting point was Kafka’s parable about a famous explorer called upon to witness a model execution in a remote settlement, which ends with the condemned man escaping and the officer in charge destroyed by his own execution machine. Ruiz displaces Kafka’s central irony of the ‘perfect execution’ into a more complex ironic commentary on Latin America’s strenuous efforts to conform to the stereotypes by which it is commonly represented abroad. Ruiz has since reflected that his concern at this time with torture and military dictatorship now seems something of a presentiment of what was soon to happen in Chile and other Latin American countries. Now that we also know his European work better than his Chilean career, The Penal Colony can clearly be seen to foreshadow his recent deadpan irony and play of stereotypes, while many of its more bizarre and mysterious details — the rattling of sabres, a swordfight reflected in a window, the President singing for his guest — recall Ruiz’s beginnings as one of Chile’s first playwrights of the Absurd.
Ian Christie, “La Colonia penal (The Penal Colony) (1971)” Monthly Film Bulletin, 52: 612/613 (1985), p. 18.
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