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Der Prinz / The Prince

Director: Sebastián Muñoz (Chile, Argentina, Belgium). Year of Release: 2020

San Bernardo, Chile, 1969. It’s the fag end of the conservative Frei government which was defeated by Salvador Allende the following year. The opening shot hones in on a deep gash. We hear what at first sounds like snoring, but it is in fact the last breaths exiting someone’s body. The camera pans out to show that the gash is a deep cut made into the throat of a man who is lying in a pool of his own blood.

Jaime is new in prison. He is young, pretty, inexperienced. He soon acquires the nickname “The Prince”. The Prince is billeted in a cell which already contains 4 men and only one bunk bed. The eldest man, Potro, with sideburns and greying hair, is obviously top dog in the cell. He orders the youngest cellmate out of the lower bunk and tells Jaime – in an offer you can’t refuse manner – that he can sleep there, with Potro. During the first night, Potro brutally rapes Jaime.

Notwithstanding this, Jaime develops some sort of relationship with the older man. This is partly down to necessity, but we do witness some tenderness. You also get the feeling that Jaime may have some daddy issues. Potro wears a wedding ring and at visiting time a woman comes to see him, but inside the jail there is an awful lot of gay sex going on. The two men in the upper bunk are also sleeping together and spend much of the rest of the time in each other’s arms.

As the film progresses, we learn a little more about Jaime’s life before incarceration. There was the relationship with the older woman who took him down to the Big City of Santiago. As she undresses he looks highly uninterested. Then he gets on top of her and they have fast, brutal, joyless sex. For a film with a lot of shagging, very few people seem to get much fun out of it.

Then we see what happened in the lead up to the opening scene. Jaime meets and befriends El Gitano. It is a relationship which is made up of both joy and frustration. In one scene they fall asleep together and Jaime’s hand brushes tentatively over his friend’s chest. But for most of the time, his love is unspoken, unsublimated, until the fateful night when they ride on El Gitano’s motorbike and go to a pub together.

It is an evening when the usual round is 12 beers, although there are only the two of them, with the occasional visitor to their table. They steadily get more drunk. Then a stranger comes and flirts with El Gitano, saying if he weren’t only attracted to women, he’d quite like a dance. Music plays and the two start dancing. Jaime picks up a bottle and smashes it against the table.

Meanwhile things are hotting up inside the prison. Although Potro is still in charge of his own cell, his authority in the prison is being challenged by a new inmate who he knows from the past – Che Pibe. Che Pibe is a black marketeer who is able to supply you with anything you want, including a jacket that Jaime has his eyes on. Che Pibe also has a younger lover, on whom Jaime’s eyes also linger.

There are a few shower scenes, prison guards rape an inmate with a broom handle, a cat is garotted and there is a big fight. As we approach the end of the film, there is a transfer of power inside the prison. While this is happening, we hear a radio broadcast containing Allende’s acceptance speech after he takes office (but most definitely power, as anyone who is aware of Chilean history can testify).

So, what does it all mean? Or maybe more importantly, what’s it supposed to mean? Reading some of the reviews, it’s clear that if the film is trying to make a subtle political point, it has passed its audience by. Some reviews argue that Allende was installed by the CIA and that his government’s policy on gay rights was no different to that of the Pinochet dictatorship which overthrew him 3 years after he took office (if you’re looking for the CIA connection, you might try looking here).

Does it matter that some reviewers don’t seem to have read up on Chilean politics? Of course not. But because they can draw conclusions from the film that are completely at odds with what was actually happening in the country at the time might suggest that even if the film is trying to make a profound comment, it is only able to do this to a miniscule audience.

Or maybe it’s not trying to be profound at all. Maybe the only point that it’s making is that prison isn’t very nice, and inmates make do with whichever sexual relations can see them through. Which is probably true, but haven’t all sorts of other films told us that already? Der Prinz is well enough made, it is engaging enough, but it doesn’t seem to be saying anything new. Go if you have to, you won’t be profoundly disappointed, but you probably won’t be too excited either.

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