Here is the story of the biggest prison escape in Chilean history. In 1990, during the final days of the Pinochet regime, 49 leftwing prisoners escaped from a Santiago jail via a 60-metre-long tunnel dug over 18 gruelling months with spoons and screwdrivers. Local newspapers called it “The Great Escape” and “An Escape for the Movies”; the event was a natural for the big screen. Jailbreak digs into this historic episode with thrilling oomph and awe.
Much of the film’s pleasure derives from the ingenious ways the prisoners manage to dig the tunnel right under the noses of the watchful, sadistic guards. At one point, the crew use a pornographic poster to cover the opening to the crawl space where they would ultimately stack more than 50 tonnes of dirt. The guard takes no notice; he quips that the model is still wearing too many clothes. Later, the camera pulls back to reveal the real scope of the tunnel, all masterfully rigged with lights. Goosebumps.
Although the construction of the tunnel overshadows the performances, the clash of personalities between the leaders of the break is engrossing enough. The quiet León Vargas (Benjamín Vicuña), who is still suffering from the loss of his family under the dictatorship, engineers the tunnel’s mechanics; the brassy Rafael Jiménez (Roberto Farías) remains the operation’s driving force. The female characters – the prisoners’ lawyer (Amparo Noguera) and Jiménez’s wife and outside liaison person (played by Francisca Gavilán) – add balance and nuance to an otherwise male-centric film.
Exciting as it is, Jailbreak is hampered by sequences with stilted, over-expository dialogue that don’t do a great job of setting up the historical and ideological background; other than the prison conditions and the harsh death penalties awaiting seven of the prisoners, we don’t know much about the political stakes outside the jail’s four walls. Nevertheless, it’s an entertaining watch – particularly for a feature directorial debut – that alternates between moments of private turmoil and collective fervour.
• Jailbreak is release on 1 March on digital platforms.