Patricio Guzmán’s Le Cas Pinochet (The Pinochet Case, 2001) is more than just a coda to his epic La batalla de Chile (The Battle of Chile, 1975-79), it is a sober, dispassionate reminder that justice pursued is always more satisfying than justice deferred. The documentary is also a moving case study of how international law can empower individuals even where political circumstances appear to favour a moral amnesia towards bringing war criminals to justice.

The historical context that underscores every frame of Guzmán’s film is a testament to the courage of individuals against tyranny. General Augusto Pinochet’s overthrow of President Salvador Allende on 11 September 11 1973 became a toxic corruption of all the values that a free market democracy – the seeming rationale for the coup – is supposed to embody. Pinochet’s reign over Chile as President, then commander-in-chief and, finally (as his power and influence began to decline in the 1990s), self-appointed “senator for life”, represented one of the most notorious perversions of civil society since the Second World War. While few would argue that Allende’s fractious coalition of liberal centrists, social democrats and hard-line Marxists was perfect – nor did its hyper-nationalisation program give it much support among the upper classes or foreign investors – Pinochet capitalised on the fissures within the government and military to create an oppressive police state dominated by a cult of personality.

In addition to the more than 3000 political prisoners imprisoned, tortured and murdered in the period after the coup, Pinochet’s brutal clampdown (championed by no less an intellectual cheerleader than Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist whose fondness for Third World despots had the virtue of consistency) had a corrosive effect on the cultural fabric of his country. While Chile enjoyed economic growth during Pinochet’s rule, the cost was the diaspora of a million of its citizens – many of them members of the same university educated, middle class that Pinochet and his defenders professed to protect.

As the years went on, especially after the plebiscite that led to democratic elections, Chile painfully shook off the oppressive influence of Pinochet and the oligarchy that supported him. Guzmán’s film is an anatomy of the tipping point that led to the final collapse of Pinochet’s Godfather-like status. Cocooned by wealth and the vanity that comes from those whose power is built on fear and oppression, Pinochet made one of his regular shopping trips to London in September 1998 and visited friends sympathetic to his regime. During his stay, he developed a severe back problem. He chose to ignore his advisors, prolong his stay, and receive treatment in London. Recovering from surgery at a private clinic, he was placed under house arrest by Scotland Yard.

Pinochet’s arrest was the culmination of two years of legal footwork – much of it gathering first-hand accounts from those who had survived imprisonment and torture by Pinochet’s secret police – by Chilean prosecutor Carlos Castresana who filed the charges, and the Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón, who upheld them and issued the arrest warrant. Guzmán, with the calm persistence of a Columbo-like detective, provides the viewer with simple imagery of Pinochet’s detention in the United Kingdom and Chile: the smoked glass windows of Pinochet’s limo as it enters the grounds of the estate where his house arrest will be spent; the chanting demonstrations by Chilean expatriates (mainly anti-Pinochet but interspersed with a few diehard pros); and the glimpses of a seemingly fragile, retired “statesman” at the centre of this political maelstrom.

Guzmán’s sensitivity to detail emerges seamlessly from the documentary’s structure. He carefully crosscuts the accounts of witnesses who either lost family or experienced torture with the legal minutiae of the UK detention trial. Although the bulk of the film consists of interviews with those clearly against Pinochet, it does include one with Swiss businessman Peter Schaad, a friend of the dictator, who visited him during his confinement. He is seen parroting the neo-liberal line that the dictator was a hero who saved his country from economic and political chaos. It is a moment of “found satire” that speaks volumes about the ethical complacency of the far too comfortable.

The Pinochet Case concludes on a tone both ironic and triumphant. After spending 503 days under house arrest, the Blair government allowed Pinochet to return to Chile for health reasons. Stripped of his diplomatic immunity by the House of Lords, Pinochet is in sufficient condition to greet a parade of supporters on the airport runaway when he returns. This hero’s welcome is brief since Pinochet, facing 200 accusations of crimes in his own country, spends the rest of his life, until his death in 2006, under vigorous judicial scrutiny by the Chilean courts for the worst excesses of his military rule in the ’70s and ’80s.

For the families who lost husbands, wives, sons and daughters under Pinochet’s rule, it is doubtful that the collapse of his status brought much solace. Guzmán shows the witnesses he has interviewed standing as a group, staring silently at the camera – calm, implacable and knowing. Few of us can truly imagine their pain and suffering, but Guzmán’s documentary gives them the dignity and justice denied them by Pinochet. The viewer is unlikely to forget two other images from this fine documentary: the camera moving through the dilapidated remains of Villa Grimaldi, the former centre of much of the torture and killing; and the unveiling of a statue of Allende in the heart of Santiago in the wake of Pinochet’s detention in London. These images should do more than just echo in our memory, but call those of us who are lucky enough to live in a democracy to act and participate more.

Le Cas Pinochet/The Pinochet Case (2001 France/Chile/Belgium/Spain 110 mins)

Prod Co: Patricio Guzmán Producciones, with the assistance of Benece Paco Poch/Benecé Produccions/Canal+ España/Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC)/Centre du Cinéma et de l’Audiovisuel et des Télédistributeurs Wallons/Instituto de la Ciencas y las Artes/Les Films d’Ici/Les Films de la Passerelle/Mallerich Audiovisuales S.L./Nueva Imagen/Open Society Institute/Pathé Télévision/Patricio Guzmán Producciones S.L./Radio Télévision Belge Francophone (RTBF)/Renn Productions/Telepiù/The Documentary Fund Prod: Yves Jeanneau Dir, Scr: Patricio Guzmán Phot: Jacques Boquin Ed: Claudio Martìnez Sound: André Rigaut Narration: Michael Morris