A couple of years back, one of my earliest reviews on here was for Pablo Larraín’s film No (find it here), which against the odds managed to be entertaining whilst firmly engaging with the political history of Chile. Recently, and in light of his latest The Club winning a Silver Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, I revisited his second directorial attempt: Tony Manero.
Like No, it is set in the recent past, the brutal years of Pinochet’s grip over Chile. But whereas No took place in 1988, at the tail-end of the Pinochet years, Manero takes us to 1978, right in the middle of this dark era for Chile. The difference in mood is reflected through the formal differences in both films: No was filmed with 1980s video technology and was colourful and light, whereas Manero remains as dark in lighting as it is in tone.
1978 is also the heyday of the disco era, and some Dardennes-style handheld camerawork forces us to follow Raul (Larraín regular Alfredo Castro), a 50-something sociopath whose obsession with John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever effectively rules his life. He watches every repeat screening of the film, reciting the lines by heart. He dresses exactly like the character in his showpiece dancefloor scene, down to the colour of buttons. Most of all, he wants to be looked at by others as Manero, having no discernible personality of his own, and the ends to which he’ll go for this are shocking. This goes way beyond mere fandom, as we soon discover Raul and his fragile ego are soul-destroyed. He is a genuinely unlikable and unpredictable protagonist – and here Castro is quite incredible in his portrayal of this blank zombie of a man.
Meanwhile, in the background of the streets of Santiago which Raul struts down, there are constant reminders of the oppressive police state which Pinochet’s Chile was, and no amount of disco can secure an escape from it. This grim emotionally dead totalitarian society is exactly the kind of source from which would result a character like Raul. The parallels between Raul and the state of the nation are in evidence even down to the superficial worship of Western culture. Whether it’s US-backed free market economic reforms and courting the friendship of Reagan and Thatcher for Pinochet, or aping Travolta’s gyrating for Raul, in the end it is all cultural imperialism. Furthermore, much like in No, Larraín explores the hold television and consumerist pop-culture have on our aspirations, with the inclusion of a TV Tony Manero lookalike contest (a sort of Chilean ‘Stars in Their Eyes‘) that Raul becomes hell-bent on winning.
With its grimy look and central character, Tony Manero isn’t particularly pleasant viewing; no surprise that it took the less harsh but no less impressive No for Larraín’s full international breakthrough. Its uncompromising honesty however, regardless of what may or may not appeal to us the audience, makes its force as a commentary on Chile’s immediate past. Larraín had already emerged as a key new voice in Chilean cinema, with plenty to say and imaginatively unusual ways to say it, and continues to be a director to follow.