"The Battle of Chile" resolves itself into a doctrinal battle cry for Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries. While it's impossible to anticipate the political significance of this ambitious revolutionary gesture on celluloid, the movie itself already has achieved a special niche in the history of documentary and propaganda filmmaking.

Opening a limited engagement today at the Key, "The Battle of Chile" is a three-hour distillation of about 20 hours of exposed footage shot by a group of radical leftist filmmakers during the tense, violatile months that preceded the overthrow of Salvador Allende's precarious coalition regime in September 1973, by a military junta headed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

The group, basically five technicians under the direction of Patricio Guzman, could see some kind of political showdown coming and wanted to record the process in a systematic way no matter what the outcome.

Although their determination to cover meetings and solicit opinions on both sides of a politically divided populace involved a certain amount of dangerous deception (the group faked foreign press credentials in case of suspicion at right-wing rallies), the filmmakers were convinced they couldn't lose ideologically. Here is Guzman's description of their purposefulness:

"Three possible roads seemed open to our country at that time: a fascist coup d'etat like the one that actually occurred, or a civil war which offered two alternatives: the victory or defeat of the popular forces.

If the civil war was to result in a victory for the popular forces, we [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] our footage would be of great [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] the workers and the peasantry, [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] the Chilean left as a whole.

There was to be a coup d'etat [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] knew that we had all the more [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] to do what we were doing, to our footage would be a sort of [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] and tribute to all that [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Chilean people had accomplished [WORD ILLEGIBLE] those years of democratic people's government."

It might be argued that the coup served the purpose of Guzman's collective more effectively than any other alternative. After brief periods of detention and/or apprehension, most members of the group managed to leave Chile. (The whereabouts of cameraman Jorge Muller and a production assistant. Carmen Bueno, are evidently still in doubt.)

Guzman ultimately retrieved the footage, which had been smuggled into Cuba, and assembled "The Battle of Chile" - which is divided into two sections called "The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie" and "The Coup d'Etat" - at facilities provided by the Cuban Film Institute. He is currently in Cuba completing the editing of a third section called "People Power." - Guzman's doctrinaire terminology provides a trustworthy clue to the political bias that simultaneously organizes and constricts the vivid and sometimes astonishing documentary footage itself.

Muller and an occasional additional cameraman (notably an Argentine who appears to have recorded his own death scene) capture an explosive political setting, inhabited by impassioned and articulate antagonists. "The Battle of Chile" wouldn't have existed without a political slant, but the price of that slant is a frequently dubious interpretation of historical events, movies and omens.

The movie derives its dramatic immediacy and artistic fascination from the authentic illusion of sitting on a political powder keg. The problem is that the commentary persists in keeping the ideological lid on.

The raw material confronts us with an authentically turbulent and confused array of political loyalties and opinions. The commentary relentlessly denies the complexity by ascribing a monolithic plan of unsurpation to Allende's rivals, ritually referred to as "the imperialists and bourgeoisie," and finding the left guilty of only too much constitutional scruputousness and too little armed militancy.

A trashy new horror movie is called "The Medusa Touch," but the commentary for "The Battle of Chile" actually achieves a kind of Medusan deadliness. You feel as if your eyes are turning to stone each time this sepulchral interpretive gloss is imposed on the raw material. Even the voice chosen to harrate the American release version couldn't have been less inspiring: a woman as maddeningly bland and monotonous as Michael Moriarty at his low-key worst.

Admirably resourceful as filmmakers, Guzman and his colleagues invite considerable skepticism as propagandists. Their account of events presumes an underlying unity, fixity and ruthlessness of purpose in Allende's antagonists that may reflect their own singlemindedness more than the facts about the opposition.

When invoking the will of the people, the filmmakers are inclined to credit a legitimate will only to their own political camp, although a majority of the country seems to be in a different camp. They're also strangely evasive about explaining certain developments that are acknowledged to be unique: evidence of student and working-class animosity toward Allende. The fleeting assertion "they lack political awareness" woun't quite do in a movie conceived as a dialectical epic.

One may begin to appreciate how a head of state in Allende's position - an avowed Communist lacking either the mandate or authority for decisive social reforms - can be caught between a rock and a hard place.

Although treated as a venerated leader, Allende is implicitly guilty of failing to become a Castro.The echoing political chants on the soundtrack are "Create People's Power," "A united left will never lose," "Allende, Allende, We will defend you" and "Create People's Militia."

Although the events Guzman helped document ultimately forced him into exile, Castro's Cuba would appear to be his spirtual home. His movie reinforces the notion, which may or may not have achieved mythic dimensions in the Communist world by now, that only Castro's example works in practice.

"The Battle of Chile" is invaluable as both a record of political turmoil and reflection of ideological calculation and rationalization.