Colonia vs the Scarlet Letter
I am a zealous fan of Emma Watson. She not only was Hermione Granger (who just happens to be my childhood idol), but as an adult she has become the living embodiment of all that Hermione represents. For instance, she is a UN Women Global Goodwill Ambassador and frequently speaks out about equality for both women and men. Therefore, I have to see any film that she is in, because it is bound to be fabulous.
I recently watched this film on Netflix called Colonia, staring Emma Watson. As I was watching this story unfold I was struck by the similarities between this account of a Chilean cult/torture camp and “The Scarlet Letter.” Since this is the book I just finished reading, I decided to do a post comparing the two stories.
Warnings about the film: There is sexual content, violence and it is an intense thriller so not appropriate for younger audiences.
Summary of Colonia
A young flight attendant, Lena, (Emma Watson) meets up with her boyfriend, Daniel, who is involved in a Chilean political party. While they are spending an extended weekend together, the rival party topples Daniel’s party in a military coup and chaos ensues. The victors round up the leaders of the losing political party and have them tortured for information. Lena finds herself wrapped up in the midst of this coup, when Daniel is taken and sent to a torture camp that doubles as a religious compound. The only way to get in to rescue him is to voluntarily join. What follows is a harrowing escape that takes more than 6 months to accomplish, and the secrets Lena discovers have the potential to undo the fabric of the entire cult.
Summary of the Scarlet Letter
The story opens with a young woman, Hester, being shamed in public for committing adultery. The setting is the 1600s colony of Salem. Hester Prynne had an affair and then a child and now is made to wear the scarlet badge of shame. Hester is ostracized by her people, and even more so because she refuses to reveal the identity of her lover, who happens to be the colony’s most revered priest. The story explores the ways that Hester, the priest and Hester’s husband deal with the shame and hurt from the situation.
So now that you know a little about the two stories let’s jump into some interesting parallels between the two.
The forbidden relationship
In the Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale, the priest, share in a forbidden relationship. Their society condemns it because Hester was married to someone else and their forbidden relationship is the beginning of their suffering. In Colonia, Lana and Daniel are in love which is the start of Lana’s involvement in the political uprising, which leads to her joining the cult. Once in the cult, her love for Daniel is completely forbidden. If the leaders where ever to find out about her love for Daniel they would beat her or worse kill her. The parallel here is that forbidden love is a threat to those in power, and it also leads to great suffering for the lovers.
The Creepy Religious Culture
Colonia is about a cult, so the religious content is blatantly obvious, but it is worth noting that the culture of the religion is extremely creepy. They forbid any day-to-day interaction between the men, women, and children. Men and women aren’t allowed to speak to one another let alone date or get married, and children are removed from their parents by three months of age. All of these things are done in the name of the religion, but the reality is that it allows those in authority to maintain control of the people. In the Scarlet Letter the religious culture is less creepy and more superstitious, but with no less deadly consequences. The people of Salem believe that because Pearl, Hester’s daughter, is a little strange that she is a fairy child and as such she should be abandoned. Those in authority use these superstitions as a justification for the control that they try exhibit over the way that Hester raises her daughter and the way that Pearl acts. When Hester and Pearl don’t conform to the standards that the authorities thinks are acceptable the fate of the child’s salvation is called into question in order to provide the evidence to take her away from Hester. Fortunately, Hester is a stellar single mom and prevents this from happening.
The Belittling of Women
The cult is extremely derogatory to women. Pius, the leader of the cult, says that “all women are full of lies.” Dora, a woman in the cult, is beaten to the point of death when she says she wants to marry one of the men. Lana is told that she is a “stinking, fat cow” and then beaten for “putting her whore’s body” in the river. Colonia has overt examples of the mistreatment and oppression of women, and in comparison the Scarlet Letter may not be as obvious, but it is there. Hester is told that she is unfit to be the caregiver of her daughter because her child was born without a father. Her community brands her with the scarlet A in order to shame her for being in love. Rodger believes that it was the weakness of Hester’s womanly nature that led to her falling in love with Arthur, rather than the facts that she was forced to marry Rodger and she didn’t love him, she believed Rodger dead so she was alone, and that she was in love with Arthur.
Both stories tie the sexuality of women to shame and moral weakness
This is an age old tactic of putting women into “their place.” Make women feel shame for being sexual beings and that provides the power needed to control their lives. In Colonia, Pius regularly shames women for their sexuality and hypersexualizes them in order to make his control more complete. For instance, when Lena first arrives at the compound she is wearing a modest dress, but Pius forces her to strip her blouse in front of him in order to reveal her undergarments, claiming that her lacy bra is of the Devil and is therefore shameful. The matron of Lena’s ward, who is instructed by Pius, tells her to bind her breasts with a bandage as though having breasts is shameful and should be hidden. The reason that aligning women’s sexuality and shame is so important to Pius is that if the very identity of being a woman is somehow shameful that means women are less than men and can be exploited as slave labor. And this is what he does. He uses the women of the camp as slaves to farm the agriculture of the compound.
In the Scarlet Letter, shame also plays a large role in the story of Hester. The colony of Salem puts a heavy burden of shame on Hester for getting pregnant and having a child. Pregnancy and maternity are strongly associated with the sexuality of a woman and since Hester’s child is born out of wedlock the community sees fit to condemn her. By condemning Hester, the religious and political leaders can keep tight control over the rest of the people. They wish for society to look a certain way and for people to obey their leaders blindly, and the best way to ensure that is to provide and example of what happens to those who don’t conform. They are shamed and outcast forever.
The role of children
In the Scarlet Letter, Hester’s daughter, Pearl, plays a large role in revealing the true cowardly nature of the priest, her father. Multiple times, she asks him if he will join hands with her and her mother in public. In essence, she wants him to claim responsibility for the two them. He refuses repeatedly, giving in to his cowardice and refusing to partake in the blame. As a man he carried no outward sign of the participation of his relationship with Hester, so he can take refuge in his cowardice and silence. However, at the very end of the novel Arthur does accept his role as Pearl’s father and takes her hand publicly, confessing his part in creating her life. Children also play an important role in Colonia. They are not allowed to be with their parents because they provide the power that comes from united families. Pius breaks up the families in order to ensure that he remains in control of his compound. But it is children that reveal the core of his character. When in public Pius abhors all sexual conduct, but when in private he molests hundreds of children. It is on charges of child molestation that he is finally brought to justice and sent to spend the remainder of his life in jail. Pius is as cowardly as Arthur when it comes to owning up to his true character. Both men claim to be “men of God” that are pure and powerful and ordained as holy, but both men are pretenders and liars.
Colonia is an amazing movie! Not only for its harrowing escape, but also because it is a true story. It’s a story of a place where real people suffered terribly and an evil man manipulated people for his own disgusting purposes and gain. But just as the Scarlet Letter is a story of a young woman who overcomes incredible obstacles to find happiness in her life, so Colonia is a story of a young woman who dares to be more than what an evil man thinks of her. She dares to defy him and because of her actions the truth is made known to the world of the atrocities that were taking place in that camp. Sadly not much has been done to help the people of Chile in achieving justice, but if more people are aware of the truth then we can unite to fight for justice. Pius separated people for a reason. Divided people are weak and ineffective, but when people are united real change can take place.
Hawthorne, N. (1904). The Scarlet Letter. John Lane & Co.: London and New York.
Gallenberger, F. (Director). (2015). Colonia. Majestic Filmproduktion.
Photo by Lars K Jensen
Link to photo license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Photo edited with PicMonkey