Stayin’ alive in Pinochet’s Chile

With humour and violence, indie flick Tony Manero explores a world suppressed by dictatorship and fed on Hollywood mythology.

Julius Pasteiner

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Santiago de Chile, 1979: Raúl (Alfredo Castro) is obsessed by the central character in Saturday Night Fever, Tony Manero – bullishly played by John Travolta – and his empowered disco shapes. He has the white suit, the black overlaid shirt collar, even the cavorting hips, but in a decaying culture, anaesthetised by the hidden but watchful spectre of Pinochet and his goons, he’s not a troubled youth trying to make good, he’s a fantasist, a killer and a rubbish dancer at that.

The tone of Tony Manero is quickly set when grizzly, 52-year-old Raúl, witnessing a mugging on the street, helps the distressed victim – an old, dotty lady – by taking her shopping back to her house. Inside he strokes the cat, watches some TV, then, without a flicker of emotion bashes her over the head repeatedly, feeds the cat and walks out clutching the TV…

But wait, this is no horror film, nor is it a historical drama. Well it is, in a way, and it’s serious and pretty damn funny as well. To start, there are political overtones, as you would expect, yet director Pablo Larraín cleverly avoids overt political posturing, preferring a more oblique approach, as the first scene subtly lets on: Raúl mistakenly lines up for a televised talent contest, thinking it’s for Tony Manero impersonators (in fact it is for another Hollywood regular, Chuck Norris). We hear in the background the contestants being prepped; ‘no political talk, no swearing’. The film never crosses these opening rules. Pinochet’s dictatorship takes a back seat, simmering menacingly behind the scenes, leaving a strangled reality to develop in brutal, desperate and surprisingly comic ways.

Sometimes strutting, sometimes furtively shuffling, but always centre stage is the enigmatic figure of Raúl, looking over the hill, but never beaten (think Al Pacino without the verbal theatrics). Following him throughout, we journey into his bizarre dream to perform Saturday Night Fever at a local bar, along with fellow ‘Fever’ enthusiasts Cony, his girlfriend, her daughter Pauli and her boyfriend Goyo, and to win a talent show as Tony Manero. It is, to the detriment of all those around him, a dream without compromise – to the point of obsessive psychosis.

What motivates his murderous obsession is never dealt with; it could quite possibly be the flamboyance of Travolta’s cock-boating moves, or the identification with a character whose lowly social standing is transcended on the disco floor, who knows? When placed in the context of a barbaric dictatorship and a cultural milieu comprising of little more than cheap, state-sanctioned TV broadcasts and Hollywood films, a mighty queer logic seems to be provoking downtrodden inhabitants to find fame by amoral means. Farfetched it may be, but it is an interesting hyperreal notion, that has resonances far beyond its setting. The extent of Hollywood’s penetration, however, is historically questionable, and the strength of its influence in the way Larraín uses it appears exaggerated, but the film’s intention is never realism.

The way that Larraín engages the moral and social disintegration that occurs under a dictatorship by contrasting foreground and background is impressive, echoing Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian vision, Children of Men. In Tony Manero, when the claustrophobic story of Raúl and his troop’s passion for American disco is shot against a barren landscape of decaying streets, of soldiers searching alleyways with torch beams, of sudden executions, we see their complete disconnection from it and can comprehend why. Also, out of an ostensibly gloomy story, with a joyless anti-hero for a lead (he never smiles for the whole 98 minutes), comes the comic absurdity of the predicament: that while their civil rights are being stripped away all they care about is reproducing a film about a working-class Italian-American, who, in donning a flashy pair of white trousers can overcome his circumstance. And with acidic irony – Manero in Saturday Night Fever was unable to escape the neighbourhood he grows up in – it’s an already-empty American dream they’re after. Utter despair somehow looks funny (in an extremely dry way).

Shooting in washed out grainy realism adds to the omnipotence of the environment, brown and greys dominate and handheld cameras blur, while jump-shops fragment. A wonderful shot of Raúl scurrying down a cobbled street on his way back from his latest brutality pans over a wall displaying only the faintest residue of a worn-down palimpsest of newspapers and hoardings, recalling a time of free-press and advertising, while hundreds of white political fliers lie without an audience on the ground. It is a clever stylistic move that emphasises the foreboding, real, yet limited Santiago, and presses the point that Raúl’s American fantasy is little more than a retreat from a bleak Chilean reality.

Larrain says Raúl is a ‘very nice guy’. Perhaps in a tongue in cheek way, what he means is that Raúl, the psychopathic killer, is not problematic in Pinochet’s Chile. When the intelligence services come to the bar it’s for Goyo, the boy with a leather bag full of little communist flyers, not Raúl. The brutal world created by the regime shows its true face as the obsessive killer carries on without anyone ever realising he is killing innocent people, or caring that he is – he’s apolitical, he’s what the regime likes; he’s the one stayin’ alive.

Tony Manero reveals the forgotten space existing at the bottom rung of a dictatorship in an intriguing way, and yet still produces an affecting story out of a disturbing cast of characters. While it will not be to everyone’s taste, this film is unique, and like all good indie movies you come away stimulated, bewildered and wanting more of this clever weirdness.

Julius Pasteiner is a former spiked intern.

Tony Manero is released in the UK on 10 April 2009. Watch the trailer below:

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