Tony Manero

Review by Anton Bitel @AntBit

Directed by

Pablo Larraín

Starring

Alfredo Castro Amparo Noguera Héctor Morales

Anticipation.

Pinochet! A psychopath! Disco!

Enjoyment.

So squalid, it is more endured than enjoyed.

In Retrospect.

This allegory of national failure is down and dirty in every sense.

Pablo Larraín’s Saturday Night Fever-inspired drama is a damning indictment of the Pinochet dictatorship.

Sometimes a movie plays one way on the screen, before metamorphosing into something altogether different in the mind’s eye. Saturday Night Fever, for example, is a bleak tale of youthful fecklessness, blue-collar dissatisfaction, unwanted pregnancy and date rape, where the American Dream is exposed in its most narcissistic and narrow-minded form.

But so beguiling were the moves of Tony Manero (played by a young John Travolta) on the dancefloor and so funky were the Bee Gees’ accompanying songs on the soundtrack that the film quickly entered the collective consciousness as a sort of showcase of all that was iconic (and good) about the disco scene – and about the ’70s more generally.

In Tony Manero, Raúl (Alfredo Castro) too has been blinded by the dazzling glitterball of Saturday Night Fever. And so he sets out to impersonate Manero and to reenact his hero’s night of choreographed glory, oblivious to the disco king’s shortcomings, as well as to his own. An apolitical, barely literate 52-year-old during the Pinochet dictatorship, he leads a dance group for a small bar on the outskirts of Santiago, even more squalid and sleazy than the Brooklyn nightclub where Manero struts his stuff – and he will not let anything or anyone stand in the way of his obsessive recreation of Manero, so that he ends up also reenacting the violence and terror of his own country.

Raúl enters a popular Chilean television competition as a Manero lookalike, but viewers familiar (as Raúl himself, in his 1978 setting, cannot be) with Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983) will also notice his uncanny resemblance to Al Pacino’s white-suited Tony Montana. This is hardly coincidence – for like Montana, Raúl is a ruthlessly driven psychopath, even if, amidst a backdrop of political repression, dog-eat-dog lawlessness and state-conducted murders, his psychosis hardly sets him apart.

So while director Pablo Larraín makes everything in Tony Manero (including the camera) orbit around Raúl, there’s always the sense that the man embodies the malaise at the heart of a nation, where dreams are as limited as freedom, where culture is slavishly imitated from abroad, and where identity and history are things to be disguised or denied.

Larraín’s filmmaking style is so calm and unsensational – shabby even, much like the grizzled protagonist and his troupe – that moments of sexual explicitness, homicidal violence and transgressive outrage barely register, leaving viewers feeling as numb to it all as the characters themselves. Yet even though Raúl may be trying to live a borrowed dream, Larraín refuses him (and us) the desired Hollywood ending, so that the final scene here (unfolding on a Santiago bus) concentrates all the film’s inner tensions into a moment of unbearable (and unresolved) suspense. It is, in all its incompleteness, a perfect dénouement to a difficult film.

Published 9 Apr 2009

Tags: Chilean cinema

Anticipation.

Pinochet! A psychopath! Disco!

Enjoyment.

So squalid, it is more endured than enjoyed.

In Retrospect.

This allegory of national failure is down and dirty in every sense.

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