Friday, January 7, 2011
Political horror mergers with black humour in Tony Manero, a startling Chilean film from Pablo Larrain. Raul, a 52-year-old dancer working in a dive bar where the floor is rotten and the disco ball is broken mirror glass glued to a soccer ball, obsesses over John Travolta’s character from Saturday Night Fever. He watches the film over and over, committing each move to memory, memorizing the lines even though he doesn’t know English. And along the way, he casually murders anyone whose death might somehow aid the pursuit of his grandest dream—first prize on a third-rate Chilean afternoon talent show where contestants imitate the likes of Travolta or Chuck Norris. All runners-up receive a lovely poncho for trying. Failure is not an option.
Filmed with a painful intimacy (the camera hovers over Raul’s shoulder like a sour, whispering devil), there’s a shock to the violence that never quite recedes. Raul is terrifyingly numb, a dead-eyed sociopath who would be pathetic and laughable if not for his viciousness. As he dances in his pristinely white suit, the expression on his face contains all the warmth of a corpse—and this is when he’s doing what he loves, keep in mind. Around him, there is talk of curfews, army trucks rumbling through the street, police shooting political dissidents dead by the river. The grand dream of the Pinochet regime plays out like an off-key song on the radio in another room, while Raul abuses and betrays everyone around him in pursuit of his own meager ambitions. There’s no starry-eyed romanticism about escaping the crushing world through the power of pop culture here. Raul’s feeble fantasy offers no respite from reality, but merely another version of Pinochet’s brutality and cruelty, as if everything that touches this foul time and place withers. Under the dictator, all pleasures are debased, all dreams nightmares.