Hannah Strong


El Conde – first-look review

Pablo Larraín imagines Augusto Pinochet as an aged vampire craving death in his gothic satire, which marks his first foray into horror.

The shadow of Augusto Pinochet looms large in Chile. The dictator has now been dead for as long as he ruled the country, but his legacy informs every aspect of Chilean culture – a fact that filmmaker Pablo Larraín (himself the son of two politicians) has explored throughout his career, most explicitly in his trilogy of Tony Manero (2008), Post Mortem (2010) and No (2012).

Yet for the past few years, his interests have skewed more Western, with heavily-lauded biopics of Jackie Kennedy and Princess Diana – though his underrated reggaeton drama Ema is worth a mention too. Still, Larraín returns to his homeland for his tenth feature as director and revisits Pinochet’s rule in a less-than-subtle political satire, which imagines the general as an immortal vampire.

What if, Larraín and his co-writer Guillermo Calderón propose, Pinochet was not a man, but a monster? Born in France shortly before the Revolution of 1789, his perverse appetites would eventually lead him to South America, where he would adopt a new name and identity, rising through the ranks to become a decorated military leader. A rather familiar staid British voiceover lovingly recalls Pinochet’s rise to power – and his subsequent decline. The man’s greed and hubris have led him to fake his own death, and so he hides out on a remote island ranch with his wife Lucía (Gloria Münchmeyer) and devoted butler Fyodor (Larraín’s frequent collaborator Alfredo Castro), awaiting the arrival of his five children.

These children, we are told, are nothing more than parasites, feeding off the black blood of their father, and their arrival on the island is not out of concern but rather fuelled by impatience. They are hungry for their inheritance, but due to Augusto and Lucía’s creative accounting, can’t work out where it is. Meanwhile, Carmensita (Paula Luchsinger) a devoted young nun and expert exorcist, is also dispatched to the mansion, tasked with the responsibility of driving out the demon that infests Pinochet’s soul. If, that is, there is such a beast. Perhaps Pinochet has no soul at all.

Larraín has never been much for subtlety in his filmmaking, particularly in his more recent work, and favours lavish iconography that suits the horror genre. Shot in dramatic black and white (by Ed Lachman no less) that recalls the likes of Nosferatu and Tod Browning’s Dracula, Larraín imagines a shambling Count (played by Chilean acting legend Jaime Vadell) holed up in his now decrepit ranch, reminiscing about his glory days.

The affectionate voiceover lavishes praise on him in a comical manner (the reveal behind the narrator’s connection to Pinochet is one of the best gags in the film) while seemingly blaming everyone else in the country for his faults and downfall. In fact, that ire is particularly present when it comes to women within the film, and the misogyny that jumps out doesn’t really succeed as part of the satire. Women – notably Pinochet’s wife – seem to bear the brunt of the blame for Pinochet’s actions and evil, and the film even seems to suggest that behind every evil man, there’s an even more corrupt woman. While women are certainly capable of as much villainy as men, it does somewhat conveniently absolve Pinochet to repeatedly suggest he was acting at his wife’s whim.

It’s difficult to speak to the specifics of El Conde’s gender politics without spoiling the film’s third act surprise – perhaps Larraín and Calderon have a point when it comes to the particular individual they hold up in parallel to Pinochet, made palatable to the global public largely due to her gender. Nevertheless, there’s a lot that is highly enjoyable about this satire, despite its rather literal take on the politician as supernatural demon.

If anything, this allows the likes of Pinochet off the hook in too simple a fashion – it’s much easier to imagine the people who commit evil acts are distinct from us in some tangible way, rather than as human as anyone else. But it’s hard to deny the stylish gothic staging of Larraín’s first foray into genre cinema, which combines familial melodrama with bloodshed effortlessly, creating something between The Tragedy of Macbeth and Dracula: Dead and Loving It, that is undoubtedly entertaining even if its internal politics fall a little short.

Published 31 Aug 2023

Tags: El Conde Pablo Larraín

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