Saturday, December 6, 2008

Tony Manero **

Director: Pablo Larraín
Cast: Alfredo Castro, Paola Lattus, Héctor Morales
Amparo Noguera, Elsa Poblete

It's 1979 Chile, Augusto Pinochet has been in power for most of the decade, human rights have completely vanished and while armored cars patrol Santiago, people are killed for carrying anti-establishment pamphlets.
But for 52 year old Raúl (Castro) the only thing that matters is becoming Tony Manero. Obsessed with John Travolta's "Saturday Night Fever" character he spends his time watching the film while he phonetically learns the dialogues and rehearsing for a show in the guesthouse where he lives with the intention of winning a Manero look-a-like contest on national television.
If the premise sounds like a quirky comedy, the film becomes something else when Raúl helps an old lady after she's mugged.
Once she thanks him for his aid he murders her, steals her television set and pawns it for the glass bricks he needs to emulate the film's club dancefloor.
We don't know if this is the first time he's killed, but soon, and for the rest of the film, this becomes his modus operandi as he uses murder to reach his ultimate goal.
Castro's comitted performance is a thing to behold. His languid figure and wrinkled face could pass at some degree for the mug of some Eastern European droll comedian, but the blank stare in his eyes and his uninterested attitude give you chills.
Castro is able to convey a dark inner force that drives Raúl to commit acts of complete inhumanity with no evidence of remorse (what he does when the people from the theater take away "Saturday Night Fever" takes costumer service to a whole different level).
Like Patrick Bateman in Mary Harron's "American Psycho", Larraín's murderous Raúl is a product of insanity in spite, not because, of the sociopolitical climate.
But while "Psycho" criticized the materialistic, hedonistic culture of the 80's yuppies, "Tony Manero" has a hard time deciding exactly what it's trying to say.
At some point it becomes obvious that Raúl is a representation of Chile, not a citizen in Pinochet's regime, but the country itself.
As damaged and dirty as the city is impoverished and falling apart, Raúl conveys the battle between nationalism and irrational wishes of grandeur that was being held by Pinochet supporters and rebellious groups.
Like the military regime Raúl takes everything by force; one scene has him grab his girlfriend's (Noguera) daughter (Lattus), taking her to his room and attempting sex with her.
There are a couple of sex scenes in the film that are raw and ugly to look at and Larraín stresses the fact that Raúl has an impotence problem (one of his encounters has his companion preferring to masturbate while he sighs in disappointment).
But if he is a representation of Pinochet's troops what does his impotence mean? Now, after the dictator's death it has a sort of comic effect, but within the film's context it makes no sense, especially because the women around him are always lusting after him.
It would make sense perhaps if sex was related to Raúl's inner life, but the director has a hard time separating the character from his symbolism.
As with his obsession with Manero, why choose a character that represented the peak of a country's popular culture?
Is it means of contrast between the sexual liberation up North and the fear and poverty in the South? Or is Larraín simply pointing out the fact that Chile, like Raúl were at the time highly influenced by American culture? Considering that Pinochet's rise to power was aided by the CIA, Raúl's fascination with Manero results as some sort of accusation towards the American way of life, but also a critique to Chilean citizens who saw this and tried to adapt themselves to this lifestyle.
During one scene someone tells Raúl how some other guy would never win the contest, "he's too brown" she says, implying some sort of cultural self denial (the film also makes an issue out of this whenever someone asks Raúl if he likes folkloric music).
With "Tony Manero" director Larraín proves that he has a great ability by transforming recent history into a dark, wicked metaphor. But like his antihero, who after the contest stares at the camera with a "now what?" look, the film doesn't know what to do with what it has.

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