Boogie Man

James Quandt on Tony Manero

Pablo Larraín, Tony Manero, 2008, stills from a color film in 16 mm, 97 minutes.

DISCO AND DANTEAN INFERNO, Pablo Larraín’s Tony Manero portrays a dead-eyed survivor who is “stayin’ alive” during the bloody years of Augusto Pinochet’s regime in Chile. Set in Santiago’s bas-fonds of grubby cantinas and crumbling cinemas in 1978, the year Saturday Night Fever was released in Chile and half a decade after Pinochet seized power in a US-backed coup, Manero turns one man’s obsession with his eponymous alter ego into a scary, airless metaphor for cultural imperialism and the psychosis of fascism.

Despite his rather baroque moniker—Raúl Peralta Paredes O—and his grand aspirations to television stardom as a John Travolta imitator, the film’s fifty-two-year-old protagonist cuts an anonymous figure in tan windbreaker and dyed pompadour, his impassive mien masking murderous intent. Rushing to the aid of an old woman, mugged and bloody in the street below, Raúl gallantly shepherds her home. “Thank God there are decent people like you,” she says, bleak irony and political metaphor accumulating in the dank obscurity of her apartment. Identifying herself as an air force officer’s widow, proffering a tin of past-date tuna as recompense, and noting that Pinochet’s eyes are blue as she admires the dictator on television, the old woman, one of the film’s many Dostoyevskian characters, has no time to contemplate the hazards of gratitude as Raúl suddenly whacks her to death with his hand, calmly feeds her cat with the expired fish, and spoons a little for himself before scuttling through the eerily empty streets, color TV in tow. Psycho killer disguised as Good Samaritan, Raúl embodies a world in which the state executes the innocent and reduces the rest to mute acquiescence through fear.

Director Larraín, who hails from a right-wing family of wealth and political power, re-creates the dread and clandestine resistance of the Pinochet era with a manner by turns elliptical and overt. Frantic and implacable, Tony Manero employs a cinema nervoso arsenal of whip pans, extreme shallow- or out-of-focus images, jump cuts, and fast tracking follow shots, filmed in handheld 16 mm with a Dardennes-style adherence to Raúl’s body, itself the site of insistent metaphor. “You’re lifeless,” the madman’s girlfriend claims halfway through the film, critiquing his penis for getting swollen but never hard. (The cinephilic Larraín equates sexual impotence and everyday fascism in the manner of 1970s Italian cinema.) Looking less like taut Travolta than decaying Pacino, Raúl strips and madly capers to music in his room, but his dance is of the dead, his grin a rictus of pretend ecstasy. In the simulacrum of his country’s colonized culture, rife with Chuck Norris look-alikes and Travolta wannabes, Raúl has no authentic being, only a feigned or fantasized one, founded in caricature and maintained by duplicity and subjugation. The parallels with Pinochet are entirely intentional.

Tony Manero leans heavily on its influences, which include The Conformist, Taxi Driver, and The King of Comedy; its pervasive Catholic imagery and abrupt brutality may not derive from Scorsese, but its sense of cultural artifact as catechistic ritual does. Raúl’s treks to the cinema to see Fever take on the aura of lone pilgrimage. He enters through a crimson-lit antechamber, and recites the film’s dialogue in phonetic English as if repeating liturgy. Proceeding obliquely—nothing is indicated of Raúl’s previous life—but given to portentous detail, Manero first shows Raúl following along with the Fever sequence in which Manero’s friend tells him, “One day you look at a crucifix, and all you see is a man dying on a cross,” and then stealing a chain and crucifix from the corpse of an anti-Pinochet activist who has been shot and dumped by plainclothes police. The hidden or slant meanings of another recent political allegory about a repressive Latin American regime, Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, are not for Larraín. Tony Manero sometimes outwits its own intelligence with overbearing metaphor, but its immense, fetid power undeniably places it at the forefront of the resurgent Chilean cinema.

Tony Manero is now available on DVD in the US and Canada through Kino International.