It's hard to make a movie that can examine the great injustices of the world, while remaining entertaining at the same time. Serious matters don't always lend themselves to one particular genre, and it can be difficult to make a fictional narrative that not only makes sense from a story-driven standpoint, but also doesn't mess with the facts too greatly. That being said, it can be done, and we've seen it done numerous times in the past. Unfortunately, after watching Colonia, I can't say that I've seen it happen any time recently.
After her boyfriend, Dan (Daniel Bruhl), is abducted and imprisoned at a Chilean "colony for dignity," Lena (Emma Watson) infiltrates said camp to locate and extract her lover. What she finds within the walls of the "Colonia Dignidad" is a society built on order and fear, lead by a cult leader (Michael Nyqvist) who can be both charismatic and brutal. With time running out, and every move watched oh so carefully, Lena will have to act fast and find a means of escape, despite not knowing who she can trust.
Colonia wants you to be shocked by what it's showing you, and it does so by presenting the heinous actions of leader Paul Schafer and his minions in a clinical fashion. It's this relatively bloodless and toothless nature that causes the film overall to suffer the most, as this brutal regime is presented in such a way that our leads don't have to get too beaten, bloodied, or dirtied. We see whippings, electroshock therapy, and plain old public shame beating, but none of it really connects.
Part of the reason Colonia doesn't connect is the fact that the film presents us Lena and Dan in a threadbare fashion, with the bare minimum of background into their relationship, as well as Dan's fight for a fair Chilean government. In fact, it's only about 15 minutes of quickly paced backstory that propels us into the coup and disorder of Pinochet's Chile, which could work if those 15 minutes had enough material to make us believe in the characters. The film's failure to do so takes away from the greatest asset it can call its own: its stellar cast.
Daniel Bruhl and Emma Watson are fantastic, despite the limited material they're given to work with. Their acting abilities, as well as innate charisma, shine through the moments where Colonia lets them. If there's any justice in Hollywood, these two will be given another, more prestigious film to work with, as they're so great together. But again, with a film that runs just under two hours, we're not given much time to think or worry about them, so their performances end up lost in the shuffle for most of the film's events.
Capping off the comedy of errors that is known as Colonia's story structure, the pre-requisite title cards at the end of the film give us both background information that would have been more useful in the beginning of the film, as well as the "where are they now?" information that we usually require at the end of a film "inspired by true events." For a film that's listed in the genres of "drama, history, and romance" on IMDB, Colonia shows very little of all three fronts. Yes, it's hard to make a historical film that's entertaining without stretching the truth to an uncertain degree.
But that's not what I'm asking Colonia to do. I'm asking it to just give me a little more of its time, so it can slow itself down and tell a story that could have been a pot boiler, but instead turned into a half baked melodrama. With bookends that are more interesting than the meat of the piece, it's recommended that you watch the first and last half hour of Colonia, and then read up about the actual Colonia Dignidad in-between.