Title: Tony Manero
Country: Chile, Brazil
Language: Spanish, English
Genre: Crime, Drama
Director: Pablo Larraín
Cinematography: Sergio Armstrong
Edging to the annual awards season, this year a sure thing is that Chilean director Pablo Larraín will on everybody’s radar with his one-two punch NERUDA (Chile’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film) and the formidable JACKIE, a biopic about Jacqueline Kennedy, may win its star Natalie Portman a second Oscar statue as a major player.
So here comes a warm-up to get acquainted with Larraín’s previous work, TONY MANERO is his second feature, a sombre take on Chile’s darkest time under the Pinochet regime peppered by a less sombre through-line: the 52-year-old protagonist Raúl Peralta’s (Castro, Larraín’s regular, an Al Pacino doppelgänger both in appearance and affective intensity, also the co-writer of the script) obdurate participation of a TV program “One O’Clock Festival”, where a Tony Manero (the lead character in John Badham’s SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER 1977, played by John Travolta) impersonation competition is scheduled in Santiago, 1978.
Examined closely by a handheld Super 16mm, which intermittently toys with a blurry focus to accentuate the proximity of a sordid milieu, Raúl gives us the first impression of a pallid, taciturn, hangdog loner in the opening scenes where he mistakes the registration date as the actual contest, which will be held one week later. But that facet loses its disguise quickly, when he schematically assaults an old woman who has just been mugged on the street, at her own home, to take away her small boxy color TV set. He is not so much a petty criminal as a ruthless homicide, which ingeniously puts audience at the edge of the seat with a dreadful perturbation whenever he prowls or idles in the dilapidated environs, as violence could be erupted any moment if he sees the opportunity for a monetary gain, whoever the prey is.
Raúl lives with a coterie of amateur dancers in the scruffy house of Wilma (Poblete), where they also occasionally perform to entertain customers. His troupe includes Cony (Noguera), his friend-with-benefit, her adolescent daughter Pauli (Lattus) and Pauli’s boyfriend Goyo (Morales). Together they help Raúl to rehearse the John Travola routine, but there is seething tension underneath, Raúl becomes impotent during an overtly explicit rumpy-pumpy, and is mocked by Cony that the only thing can revitalize him is the urge to win the competition, which sours their relationship, Goyo is involved with some surreptitious anti-Pinochet movement, which will put everyone under the interrogation of Pinochet’s plainclothes secret police, although Raúl manages to skulk out since it is his big day.
Larraín’s tack doesn’t shy away from being obstinately provocative, up to an instance of sickeningly scatological malevolence, which seems like an unwarranted feeler to validate its sky’s-the-limit artsy taste. But on the other hand, Larraín and his co-writers perspicuously cast a phenomenon of American culture invasion as an escapism for the amoral and the hard-up living under the terror of an autocracy, which undisputedly hits the mark of liberating its restrained but astringent political manifesto.
Alfredo Castro is absolutely electrifying to watch from A to Z in the central role, holding Raúl’s interior thoughts at bay, but excellently transforms himself onto the screen as a ravishingly volatile monster, with no fear, no conscience, no hold-up can stop his destructive/self-destructive wantonness (as the inauspicious ending dauntingly beckons), who should be answer for this type of societal mutator? The culprit is clear as day in this slam-bang critique of a bygone era weighing heavily on Larraín’s fatherland.