To Die a Little

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Álvaro Covacevich’s To Die A Little (Morir un poco) was released in Chile during 1966 with great success among critics and audience. It was watched by more than 200,000 spectators during the nine months that it was screened–relegating the release of Oscar-winner Zorba The Greek to second place. Seven years later it died a little. The film was… missing. Was it an accident or a political kidnapping? Chile suffered 1,198 disappeared people during the Pinochet regime (1973-1990). At first glance, it seems a tiny number next to the 30,000 disappeared in neighboring Argentina, but disappearance is not about numbers: one is enough. Especially if it’s somebody that we know, a beloved, a friend, a son. And probably for Covacevich this film was a kind of disappeared son. It was one more disappeared film that suffered the same fate as first-wave Chilean filmmakers like Jorge Délano, Gabriela von Bussenius and Pedro Sienna.

In the years following the cinematic disappearances, Fundación Chilena de Imágenes en Movimiento recovered around 80 percent of all the lost films. A lot of the celluloid had been used to manufacture combs, and most of the Chilean silent films were transformed into ping-pong balls. The Argentine laboratory Alex–which processed a large number of the Chilean films–had a fire and later declared a bankruptcy, finally closing its doors in 2001. Argentina also suffered a cultural disaster: Due to accidents and administrative ineffectiveness around half of the Argentine archive is lost, in spite of ENERC film school’s tremendous effort to recover many of them. Because of all this, only after 33 years did Covacevich find a copy of his film — in the archives of Leipzig Film Festival in Germany. He got the film re-released in 2006 at Cinemateca Nacional in Chile. Viewers finally got to watch this writer and director as he followed Luis (in the credits as “an ordinary man”), who Covacevich found in Cartagena, a beach where Luis used vacation.

Wonderfully depicted with a nouvelle vague style and a very low budget, the film has no dialog, no professional actors, and an improvised music score. These elements didn’t stop it from being a big hit in the box office.

Breakthrough editing, mixing black and white with color, contrasted the poor Cerro Blanco villages and Cartagena beaches with the rich people dancing and drinking in Santiago or Reñaca beach. Some images are shocking, like the kids eating desperately a piece of bread thrown by a woman while they are hidden in a cave. The striptease scene was probably also controversial.

An accurate merge of documentary and fiction turns Covacevich into a surgeon of filmmaking without blurring the highly artistic sensitivity. He explained in an early interview that every day the man goes to the streets “to die a little, instead of living a little”. The daily round-trip routine from home to work, the daily pressure about watching and buying things, the same yearly vacation and the social justice worried Covacevich and were shown in this film with simplicity and power. The metaphor of a bank teller caged like a canary follows the metaphor of a balloon falling into a spiral staircase and bursting out a few seconds after a kid is playing with it. In some way this marks the destiny of the kid and many others with no future and no names–like the (nameless?) credits show. Luis observes everything as a ghost: images about a war, atrocities, rats, poverty, desolation, and a dreamed happiness that he can’t have–the striptease that his wife performs isn’t enough. A vast, empty field makes Luis more lonely. A series of “forbidden” signs continues oppressing him until he explodes and reacts. He breaks the signs and does what he shouldn’t. A last image shows him under a small waterfall with his arms wide open: liberty or crucifixion? He is alive; he is dead; he is alive. Just like his film.

Covacevich leaves in his legacy two other important events: He shot the conversations between Chilean ex-president Salvador Allende and Cuban president Fidel Castro, and he made a documentary about the Uruguayan rugbiers that survived in Los Andes, scripted by Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. (Many years later the story became a book and a fictional Hollywood film, Alive.) Covacevich currently lives in Mexico and travels to New York once in a while. He is expected to attend both official screenings of Morir un poco at Tribeca, probably to keep watch over the only original 16mm piece closely, to answer some questions, to receive some congratulations, and to live a little.