Tony Manero

Tony Manero

Tony Manero or Al Pacino?

(Lorber) Alfredo Castro, Paolo Lattus, Hector Morales, Amparo Noguera, Elsa Poblete. Directed by Pablo Larrain

We tend to take our freedoms for granted. In other cultures, those freedoms are non-existent; even a suggestion of non-conformity can lead to arrest or worse. In Chile under the dictator Agustin Pinochet the rule was by an iron fist without the benefit of a velvet glove.

Raul Peralta (Castro) lives in a working class neighborhood in Santiago and he dreams of fame and fortune. He is fascinated by Saturday Night Fever, then a current hit movie, and identifies with the central character, Tony Manero who in turn dreams that his skills as a dancer will elevate him from his working class neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Raul shows up for a television show that awards prizes to the best impersonator, but on the wrong day. He stands in line with a group of hangdog Chuck Norris wannabes, only to be told that the Tony Manero show is the following week.

Despondent, he goes to a Santiago cinema to lose himself in the lights and the glamour of Saturday Night Fever yet again. At home, he sees an old lady carrying her groceries home set upon by a group of young hoodlums. He helps her pick up her groceries and escorts her back to her own apartment where he suddenly and viciously beats her to death.

Raul, his girlfriend Cony (Noguera), his friend Goyo (Morales) and Cony’s young daughter Pauli (Lattus) make up a troupe that aspire to perform in the rundown nightclub run by Wilma (Poblete) who is also Raul’s landlady. Raul is obviously the alpha male in this ragtag troupe; he sees himself as a virile, attractive and masculine. In reality, he is impotent, unable to perform either with Cony or, in a riveting but strange scene, with Pauli. His focus is on his fantasy; he goes so far as to replace the dance floor at the bar with a glass brick one along the lines of the one seen in the movie.

The group is already starting to implode as petty jealousies and ideological differences lead to one of the group members informing on the others. Raul leaves them to fend for themselves. Dodging police patrols, he finally makes it to the competition. Who will be the winner?

Our glimpses into Pinochet’s Chile have been very rare, and Larrain gives us a good look without it being overwhelming. He prefers to leave Pinochet in the background, instead concentrating on the story set there and that’s a wise move. Larrain has said that the movie is an allegory for life under Pinochet in Chile and to a certain extent, it is.

What I find fascinating is the buy-in to the American fantasies that have been imported into Chile. The people of Santiago find escape in any way they can; their lives are so repressive that they find the need to take on other lives, other personalities in order to get past the feelings of helplessness they must have constantly.

Raul’s sexual impotence is also a metaphor for this, the impotence of the Chilean people. They are ruled by guns and fear and can’t see a way out of it. This is a strong, prideful people so it must have been extra galling to have been so powerless.

Castro, a renowned Chilean stage actor and director, looks a little like Al Pacino but gives an outstanding performance as the amoral Raul. His only passion is for the role he so desperately longs to inhabit; when that is threatened, he reacts viciously. He defecates on his friend Goyo’s suit because he feels threatened that he might beat him in the television competition.

This isn’t always an easy movie to watch and in some ways, Castro does too good a job in making the unlikable Raul truly repugnant. It gets to the point where you want him to get caught for his crimes which would of course mean the movie would come to an end but the sad truth is that a penny ante sociopath could easily fly under the radar in a place where brutal repression was so in vogue. That’s the most horrific part of the movie by far.

WHY RENT THIS: A chilling look into a sociopath in Pinochet-era Chile. Castro gives a riveting performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The lead character may well be too unsympathetic to get behind.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of nudity and sex, as well as extreme violence. Not for children in any way, shape or form.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Chile’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It didn’t win the nomination.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Film Geek

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