Trauma. 2019. Directed & Written by Lucio A. Rojas.
Starring Catalina Martin, Macarena Carrere, Ximena del Solar, Dominga Bofill, Daniel Antivilo, Eduardo Paxeco, Felipe Ríos, Claudio Riveros, Florencia Heredia, Claudia Aravena, & Catalina Bianchi.
Chris Reiben Productions / Border Motion Cinema / Trauma Spa
NC-17. 106 minutes.
Recently, a film starring Emma Watson, Michael Nyqvist, and Daniel Brühl called Colonia lightly, and in a very tangential way, brushed against the hideous legacy of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. There have been plenty of films to directly tackle the Latin American fascist’s stranglehold on his people, too. Nothing comes close to the latest film from director-writer Lucio A. Rojas.
Trauma is a fiendish piece of cinema refusing to pull a single punch. You needn’t compare this to A Serbian Film because they’re different beasts. Rojas offers something more akin to the nauseating 1988 Hong Kong exploitation flick Men Behind the Sun, which director Mou Tun-fei based on gruesome experiments committed by the Japanese during WWII under direction of Surgeon General Shirō Ishii. Although Trauma creates a wholly fictional story, it’s likewise based on history, and no less worthy of your nausea.
Rojas crafts a queasy tale by weaving Pinochet’s lasting influence of brutality through to the present, illustrating how transgenerational trauma continues on indefinitely in a nation’s blood. Even in this fictional screenplay history lives vividly. Rojas uses bits and pieces of documented psychological terror and corporeal horror inflicted on the Chilean people to revisit those barbarities on the current generation, and for good reason.
In the opening scene, an ageing father – who bears a striking resemblance to Pinochet in his later years – is torturing his wife, whom he’s recently discovered supports the communists. Pinochet hated communism and executed so-called enemies of the state. He was especially cruel to women. He had a place called Venda Sexy, named as such because prisoners detained there experienced all manners of sexual torture. Some of the worst involved animals, like the film’s initial scene, where the old patriarch tortures his communist wife using a rat.
The secret police did many horrific things over a course of nearly two decades, such as weaponising incest. They’d make women have sex with their fathers or brothers as a sick method of humiliating dehumanisation. Trauma starts out with such a scene. The father forces the son to have sex with his own mother. Worse still, the father kills mom, a member of the secret police forces the boy to keep having sex with his dead mother, and soon the son doesn’t have to be forced, he willingly continues to thrust. This disgusting moment embodies the literal and figurative rape of generations. Pinochet’s regime itself, like capitalism, turned people they exploited into a continuous cycle of self-exploitation, symbolised by a horrific act of incest and forced necrophilia.
A legacy of such brutal fascism does’t disappear. How can it?
The horror filters down through generations, infecting those left behind in its wake. The old man in the beginning cuts his boy’s face and, like the state-sanctioned violence of Pinochet, it leaves a scar— the totalitarian leader’s viciousness left scars on the whole country’s face. The boy grows up to be Juan, perpetuating violence done to him against others, carrying on the past’s violence into modern day. He turns his own boy into a dog, with whom he also has an incestuous relationship. Juan’s boy crawls around on the floor, dog-like, and so the next generation is again deformed by trauma.
“You are going to be just like them”
Although the government of Chile’s no longer anything like that of Pinochet’s era, this doesn’t mean the scars left on people don’t exist. Transgenerational trauma doesn’t necessarily mean the next generations after those who initially experienced the trauma will literally perpetuate that same trauma against others. It means people are left with broken personal lives, broken families, addiction issues, and worse. Not only that, the next generations post-trauma aren’t scarred by the actual events, they’re scarred by what those events did to the people who experienced them and how it affected them/their families going forward.
Juan is like a ghost of the former Chile, living in a place that looks eerily similar to one of Pinochet’s now abandoned interment/concentration camps as an embodiment of theme— he’s a physical, living remnant of the country’s violent past that won’t wash off, existing in the national blood and even its structures, physical or otherwise. Even the policia are useless to victims. Some policia are kept in silence by the corrosive past, whereas others are murdered like any other victim. Juan’s Chile is the same as Pinochet’s Chile in that people, of all classes, disappear, meeting repulsive ends with little to no consequences for those who’ve perpetrated their fates.
Juan is an extreme vision of transgenerational trauma. He’s an allegorical character, showing how those who experienced the horrors of Pinochet’s military live with the memories. Just because Chile now has a high-income economy it doesn’t negate the fact there’s a history of terrifying fascism with a massive human toll left in its wake. There are actually people who say “Yes, Pinochet was horrible, but he saved Chile from socialism.” Apparently converting to capitalism was worth the rape, torture, and murder of thousands.
This belongs to a wider conversation, too. In a day and age where capitalism only gets more fiendish, it’s a system of repression constantly excused. Capitalists point to failed systems of socialism (usually in states run by authoritarians, not indicative of genuine socialism) in order to somehow justify the wreckage. A bar in Trauma is named La Pena de Gloria, roughly translating to the Penalty of Glory. Oddly fitting. Part of the maddening conversation around Pinochet’s effects on Chile as a whole – trading human misery for capital gain – suggests it was all just a penalty the country paid to reach economic glory.
In one scene, Juan sings the “Himno Nacional de Chile,” specifically the third verse and chorus. Rojas bludgeons the viewer not just with violence, he does so with many allusions to the national Chilean identity, for better or worse. The country’s national song coming out of a human monster’s mouth may feel heavy handed, yet it’s right at home alongside all the merciless visuals of gore and torture.
Trauma isn’t for everybody. If you’re not one for graphic, no-holds-barred horror, Father Gore suggests you turn back. If you can handle it, you’ll find more than cruel violence and visceral practical effects. Rojas gradually works terror under the viewer’s skin with the purpose of giving Latin American horror a politically relevant face.
For some, the story’s effectiveness may ultimately be marred by the sheer ferocity of its horror. For others, the film makes an important statement using extreme horror as a vehicle for the allegory of transgenerational trauma and how pain’s corporeal horror revisits itself upon families, as well as whole countries. More importantly, if such trauma is ignored or excused, if people attempt to justify or denigrate the traumatic experiences of others, it will never truly end. Pinochet’s era came to a halt barely over a couple of decades ago, the effects of which haven’t even begun to fade. Rojas knows this and uses his film as a brutish tool to pound the point home.