Hugo Covarrubias’ “Bestia” is a harrowing story about Íngrid Olderöck, an infamous torturer working for the Pinochet regime. But it is more than that. Through subtle symbolism and filmic structure, it challenges the legitimacy of typical narratives of Chilean development which prevail in the imperialist nations and among the wealthy in Latin America. Specifically, the view he challenges is “that the evil dictator leaves behind the most successful country in Latin America […] leaving behind the developing world” (“How Chile Transformed Its Economy”). It is argued that Pinochet's implementation of neoliberalism is ultimately what led to Chile’s rapid GDP growth and industrialization: a net positive. This trivializes the brutality of the regime, both in overtly repressive forms and through the proliferation of economic inequality and inaccessibility to basic state functions such as pensions. We will not attempt to fully dispel this narrative through a hard economic lens, but will instead analyze how Covarrubias grapples with this debate throughout “Bestia”.
In the first few minutes of the film, we are introduced to Olderöck's daily routine. First, under a blue sky, she plays fetch with an excited dog. Birds chirp and we see rolling hills in the background. It’s a pleasant way to start the day. Next, she plays music while she prepares breakfast for her dog. She feeds him fresh, homemade muffins. This window into her quotidien life initially characterizes Olderöck as leading a calm life and caring deeply about her pet. Beginning the film by showing us Olderöck’s morning routine suggests that we should view the happenings of the film as repeating over a period of time, as a constant in her life. Thus, the calm she displays in her routine gives the impression of a learned precision. The simplicity, ordinaryness, and exactitude of this initial view of her daily routine mirrors conservative views about the period from 1973 to 1990 in Chile; the neoliberal reforms bear the same learned precision as a daily routine, and the steps to arrive there are as inoffensive, yet necessitated as making coffee in the morning. The banality of the routine and the limited perceptions of compassion that we inferred from it parallelize the superficial perception of the neoliberal reforms in the form of curated economic data. The reality however, is that we should not be so quick to infer: getting ready in the morning is a universal, uninteresting occurrence. In these scenes, we are primarily dealing with formal appearances, not positive substance: something to remember as the contemptible Heritage Foundation touts the “national savings rate [growing] from an anemic 2.1 percent in 1982 to 17.2 percent in 1989” as a critical benefit, while failing to inquire in what ways a national savings rate increase might actually indicate negative trends and ignoring the reality that neoliberalism has emiserated so many to the point that they were ready to burn the country down in 2019 (“A Dictator's Double Standard”).
After leaving her home, Olderöck rides the bus to work, bringing her dog along. She steps into a suburban home, where two men indicate that she sign a record book. She signs it and descends into the basement, where she plays disco music. We don’t know what she is doing there, but as the camera zooms in on the cassette player in an excruciatingly slow manner, an unsettling question creeps in: why aren’t we seeing what she is doing? Here the vapid world of “natural” appearances starts slipping away. It is fitting then, that after Olderöck leaves the house and gets home and into bed, high-pitched and resonant synths carry us into her nightmares. Here, she is once again playing fetch with her dog. This time however, she stands on a green, enormous rug, floating in the void. Instead of birds chirping happily, we hear deep tones and a reverberating wind. She throws a stick and her dog fetches it. Suddenly, instead of petting him, she beheads him with a rapier. We cut to a very similar breakfast scene as before, but now with heightened alertness. We stare at every knife on the counter and we watch her eyes for indication of intention. Should we then not alter our perception towards the tables, commas, and percentages of the Pinochet reforms? Isn’t there a more sinister dimension?
When Olderöck returns to the basement, we finally see what she is doing. As the same disco music blares—now dissonantly—we see a woman, bound and blindfolded, languishing on the concrete floor. The dog approaches the woman as Olderöck stares. Abruptly, the scene switches to the same men in charge of the logbook tossing a body into the trunk of a car.
The next day, we see her routine again. This time however, it is accompanied by foreboding, tense piano. Then, the order of events breaks down. We see scenes in rapid succession— accompanied now by frantic strings and the same constricted piano— of bodies being thrown into cars; Olderöck wielding a gun, smoking a cigarette, standing confusedly in the abyss from her nightmares; and most horrifically, her dog violating female captives in the basement. Her brutality is revealed in full.
Covarrubias shatters our initial assumptions about Olderöck. Her compassion for her pet is instantly transmogrified into a profoundly perverse relation. Of course, we cannot blame the dog, so Olderöck herself becomes the beast. This contextualizes a previous scene in which Olderöck allows her pet to perform a sexual act on her. This is grotesque and strange on its own, but even more so when we understand the aim of her torture as being to reduce her victims to the status of an animal: why would she do the same to herself? In her projection of a bestial nature onto the other, she is psychologically impelled to turn it on herself: just as the task of civilizing the “barbarian” reveals the barbarity of the “civilized”. We might understand the CIA’s and Chicago Boys’ workings in Chile in the same way: it was those same actors who decried Allende’s “abuses of power and economic mismanagment” who brought in the government that murdered thousands of innocent Chileans and caused untold suffering through policies that engendered economic inequality, respectively. Olderöck’s Nazi upbringing, which can be intimated through minute details in the film, is not irrelevant to this particular dynamic. Furthermore, it is not in spite of her barbarity that Olderöck has a meticulous routine of care for her animal: it is precisely this that facilitates the continuation of it. By the same token, Pinochet’s economic reforms are not in spite of the violence of his regime: they are one and the same substance. There could never be neoliberalism in Chile without the blood of innocent people being spilled.
All in all, “Bestia” is a scathing criticism of the historical revisionism many elites adopt towards the economics of the Pinochet regime. By slowly and shockingly tearing away at the commonplace narrative, the true brutality of both Olderöck and the regime at large is seared into the minds of the film’s viewers.
Buc, Hernán. “How Chile Successfully Transformed Its Economy.” The Heritage Foundation, 18 Sept. 2006, https://www.heritage.org/international-economies/report/how-chile-successfully-transformed-its-economy.
“A Dictator's Double Standard: Augusto Pinochet Tortured and Murdered. His Legacy Is Latin America's Most Successful Country.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 12 Dec. 2006, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/2006/12/12/a-dictators-double-standard-span-classbankheadaugusto-pinochet-tortured-and-murdered-his-legacy-is-latin-americas-most-successful-countryspan/a4d0b160-0644-4e30-a7f8-2dc65adb4002/.
By Samuel Araura