El Patio: the movie

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I decided to take some “armchair tours” of cemeteries since the combination of soggy cold weather and pandemic is making real-world travel challenging right now. Amazon Prime Video served up El Patio (2016), which follows three gravediggers in the Chilean capital of Santiago who carry a dark secret which will not stay buried.

During the Pinochet military coup and regime beginning in 1973, they were forced to bury the bodies of thousands of political prisoners en masse. As they maintain the cemetery, the elders tell their story to the younger Sergio.

Illustration by the author

Some documentaries start by orienting the viewer to the subject. Some documentaries jump right in and start documenting, and the orientation becomes a slow reveal. El Patio takes the second approach, which is well-matched to the creeping horror that is exhumed—literally, shovelful by shovelful—by the recollections of the cemetery’s caretakers.

At first, we watch the natural seasons of death turn over in the cemetery. Bodies become bones, bones become ashes. A woman waters flowers. A caretaker cultivates tomatoes. Gravediggers sift bones from dirt before they’re seen by relatives of the next deceased to occupy the grave. The men managing Santiago General Cemetery handle it all with aplomb, compassion and even good humor. But when there are too many bodies—far, far too many bodies, far too fast, for all the wrong reasons—the natural cycle breaks down. And the consequences are horrifying.

El Patio is a slow-paced, riveting, subtle film. Close observation and careful listening return the most from the experience. As the stories of the coup and Pinochet regime years become more horrific, the details more gruesome, the toll the coup has taken on the gravediggers becomes apparent through trembling lips and hands, cracking voices, moist eyes. The exhumations and identification initiatives are slow, a drop in the bucket. We see how much the restoration of remains means to one local family. And we take heart in the anger and action of protesters in their annual march to the cemetery. 

El Patio is well worth the watch and has made me want to read more on the coup. I’d also like to see Patio 29 (1998), a related documentary. I was a kid in 1973; I had some awareness from the news, but didn’t fully understand the event. I’m glad my understanding increased via this documentary rather than through a textbook. I don’t have to understand all the political nuances of the coup to know that it’s my job too, to work through and against injustice. 


Stump and Lamb explores personal growth and meaning via travels to pioneer cemeteries of the West.

This post was originally published at michellerau.com.

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