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Tony Manero (Pablo Larraín, 2008)

September 19, 2012

To talk about politics by making an horror film, or to talk about horror by making a political film. Pablo Larraín does both, with Tony Manero. 1978, Chile is under the dictatorship of Pinochet for the past five years. Soldiers patrols the streets day and night. Protesting against the regime leads to torture and death. Raúl Peralta (Alfredo Castro) doesn’t seem to care about this. In fact, he doesn’t care about anything around him. Except for Tony Manero. He’s obsessed with Saturday Night Fever, or better yet, with its lead character. He always carries around his white suit, he’s obsessed by its accuracy (one or two buttons?).

His day is divided between his visits to the local cinema, where he contemplates with astonished eyes the movie, repeating the lines that he has learned by heart, and the rehearsals for his own version of Saturday Night Fever, performed along with three other persons (a young woman, with whom he has some sort of relationship, her daughter and a young political activist). Always expressionless, his eyes become alive only when in front of the cinema screen. Apart from that, he has no interest whatsoever in other people’s lives. He helps an old lady who has been robbed on the street, just to smash her head a few moments later and steal her tv set. He brutally murders the owners of the cinema because they replaced Saturday Night Fever with Grease, and eventually to steal the film as well, to look at the single frames, alone in his room. Even when committing murders, there’s no joy or satisfaction in his eyes. His crimes doesn’t fulfill any urge or desire, just his material needs. He lives to be the Chilean Tony Manero. All his actions leads toward a TV program, in which Tony Manero’s doubles will perform. “What do you do for a living?” asks the TV presenter to Raúl. “This”, he answers.

Even if Tony Manero doesn’t appear as an explicit political movie, or at least not as explicit as the next Larrain movie, Post Mortem, the parallel between its protagonist and the regime in which he lives become clearer as the movie progresses. Raúl Peralta is the product of the Pinochet era, with its mindless violence, his isolation are the mirror of the ill society in which he lives. I always choose carefully the stills that accompany what I write, I think images have a great deal when talking about movies. I don’t pick random frames, but I try to capture moments that are beautiful enough to survive outside the film itself. At the same time, I try to diversify the subject of the stills, to have a wider range of images.

This time, the choice was very limited. Alfredo Castro, who also co-wrote the screenplay,  dominates the movie. His face and body fills the frame in a claustrophobic way. The hand-held camera follows him everywhere, rarely focusing on other characters. A grainy look, obtained by shooting on 16mm and then blowing up to 35mm, often out of focus contributes to increase the squalor that permeates the movie. The sex scenes are empty, cold, depressing. Raúl doesn’t enjoy sex with his companion. He seems to lust after her daughter, but is incapable of having sex with her. Despite living in misery, he lives in his own world, where a football with broken glass glued on is a disco ball to dance under. This mix of decay and horror, both political and psychological, creates a nightmarish atmosphere that sticks to the viewer long after the movie ended.

Alfredo Castro is plain superb. With few lines of dialogues and even less facial expressions, his portrayal of a serial killer is one of the most convincing ever seen. He isn’t only monstrous, but almost makes the viewer feel guilty and dirty himself. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer comes immediately to mind, but it’s quickly clear that Larraín’s intention isn’t just to tell a story, but to shake his audience as well. The rest of the cast is convincing as well but, as one might expect, is obscured by Castro’s presence. It’s not a coincidence after all: Larraín worked with Castro since his first film, Fuga (2006) and the collaboration between the two continues through Post Mortem (2010) and No (2012).

While most of todays political movies are mostly anachronistic, nostalgic or just useless pseudo pamphlets without energy, Tony Manero, along with Post Mortem, is one of the strongest and significant movies in recent years without even being too explicit about it.  But considering it only under a political profile would be reductive. Pablo Larraín is one of the most talented filmmakers around. His political cinema is anything but sterile. Choosing not to focus entirely on political themes, but intertwining them with well-developed characters is the key to create a powerful story that also educates viewers on a portion of history that is too often forgotten.

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