The Three Sisters

in 70th Venice Film Festival

by Silvana Silvestri

Pablo Larrain’s trademark, as director but also as producer, is a cinema that is both poetic and political — from Tony Manero to No — an oblique political gaze forcing a consideration of events that Chile’s rampant neo-capitalism would willingly avoid.

With Larrain producing, Sebastian Sepulveda’s debut film, The Quispe Girls (La niñas Quispe), in competition at the International Film Critics Week, tells the true story of three sisters who committed suicide together in 1974, in a mountain cave at an altitude of 2,500 meters in the north of Chile, where they lived for part of the year with their herd of goats.

Their collective suicide — they were found hung from a rock mass outside their cave — was recounted initially as an incomprehensible mystery, and later grew into a legend. The same sort of doubting bewilderment can be seen in most Chilean bourgeois when the local TV broadcasts new images of the atrocious crimes carried out by Pinochet dictatorship. This bourgeoisie that can still talk about Pinochet as avuelo — an affectionate nickname for Old Man — and, until the very recent past, were claiming that the toll of thousands of dead inflicted by his rule was simply left-wing exaggeration.

Sepulveda’s film grasps the chill of fear that enveloped Chile during Pinochet’s seventeen years in power, from 1973 until the late 1980s, a fear that even seeped into the sparsely populated hinterland of mountains and deserts, where the director probes the dark chasms into which people’s minds were plunged after only a year of the dictatorship.

Were the sisters killed by the military? The director opted for the suicide version of their death, but he does so with such vehemence that he is clearly suggesting they were pushed into suicide.

For once, the cameraman, Inti Briones, rejects Chilean cinema’s unwillingness to portray the natural landscape and gives us breath-taking views of the Andes — the incredible range of colours, the open spaces, the immensity of the place.

But this immensity is now almost completely unpopulated. Thanks to the dictatorship’s ‘modernisation’ plans, most shepherds sold their flocks and left. The regime had also driven out the small-time miners by banning them from having the small amounts of explosives they needed, for fear that it would be used for opposition attacks. Then, the law ‘against erosion’: a ban on mountain grazing, allegedly to halt the destruction of mountain vegetation, but in fact to destroy a traditional way of life and ensure full control over areas offering the main overland escape routes to Argentina (In the film, the exile is Alfredo Castro on a desperate journey.) The result: rural depopulation.

The landscape’s vividness is in stark contrast to the deeply lined and deeply shadowed faces of the women, whose heavy toil has turned them into ‘brutes’, to use the title of Juan Radrigán’s play from which the film derives. A face as hard as stone, is the contribution of Digna Quispe, the real niece of the three sisters. As a little girl, she was the last person to see them alive and realised something was wrong when she saw her aunts’ donkeys arriving alone, finding their way through rocks that in those parts speak louder than any voice: mute witnesses to a death ritual to avoid dying of sadness, an act of dignified rebellion against the military junta.

Edited by Yael Shuv