electricsheep

TONY MANERO

Tony Manero

Format: Cinema

Release date: 10 April 2009

Venues: ICA Cinema (London) and selected key cities

Distributor: Network Releasing

Director: Pablo Larrain

Writers: Alfredo Castro, Mateo Iribarren, Pablo Larrain

Cast: Alfredo Castro, Paola Lattus, Héctor Morales, Amparo Noguera

Chile/Brazil 2008

97 mins

Given that Chilean films only make rare appearances on British cinema screens outside of specialised festivals, Pablo Larrain’s second feature Tony Manero is a welcome, engrossing and utterly disturbing surprise. Set in Pinochet’s Chile in the late 1970s, the film takes its title from John Travolta’s main character in Saturday Night Fever, with whom the middle-aged, tight-lipped and highly damaged protagonist Raíºl is fatally obsessed. Spending most of his days in the local cinema watching Travolta’s moves again and again, he gets himself a tailor-made white disco suit, dyes his hair black, meticulously rehearses the slick choreography with his girlfriend, her daughter and the daughter’s boyfriend, and even builds a flashing glass floor in the bar where the group performs at the weekends. Raíºl aims high, and he will stop at nothing to become Chile’s official Tony Manero lookalike in a national TV contest.

As the plot unfolds and the magnitude of Raíºl’s fixation becomes apparent, it is clear that the hero of Larrain’s strangely affecting South American disco nightmare has barely anything in common with Travolta’s American working-class kid trying to dance away his boring life. Raíºl Peralta is a loner, a psychotic and nihilistic murderer, but played with heartbreaking dedication by Chilean stage actor Alfredo Castro (who is also co-author of the film’s script), he’s a riveting character, his blunt roughness and unprepossessing appearance masking a skewed inner grace.

This bizarre charm infuses the film as a whole, and is emphasised by the grey and grainy texture, apt cinematography and handheld camera, which seems to weigh down on the central character as it follows him, almost perched on his shoulders. Larrain thrusts the viewer into the feral rhythm of Raíºl’s desperate march towards showbiz stardom, focusing on the character’s endless perambulation, and offering a gripping portrait of a restless existence lost in a socially and politically repressed society at a dead end.

The film’s greatest strength lies in the unsophisticated manner in which it presents the evil deeds that Raíºl is driven to commit in the pursuit of his goal. This crudeness is compounded by the film’s sparse use of music, which is only occasionally enlivened by snippets of the original Bee Gees soundtrack and a romantic Latin-American song played on an old tape recorder. In that latter scene, Raíºl’s girlfriend tries to reach out and offer some warmth to her isolated companion, but he foolishly chooses her sensual daughter instead, merely proving once more his inability to connect with others in the screwed up world he lives in.

Superbly paced, deftly acted and pervaded with satirical wit, Tony Manero is full of a dangerous, manic energy that comes directly from its main character, a man capable of dazzling gestures and a remarkable self-control in spite of his confusion. But ultimately there is little respite in Tony Manero, and that’s what makes it a film of such peculiar emotional intensity.

Pamela Jahn

1 Comment

  1. The eternal Hollywood myth, the epochal icon of John Travolta, the disco music era: all relocated in the periphery of the empire, the violated heart of America Latina, and embedded into the mind of a man possessing none of his model youthfulness, athleticism, beauty and dancing technique. The epoch and the place (intrinsically ahistorical) where Raul Peralta pathetically and repulsively tries to resemble Tony Manero, better still, to become Tony Manero, and like the Travolta’s character to enfranchise his miserable self from social marginality and anonymity, is also where a ferocious dictatorship was thriving thanks to the biggest democracy in the world that helped to eliminate with terror and violence any form of dissent, poetical as well as political.
    Raul’s story is as relevant as its background that the spectator hardly descry, this background is History, and one of the most accomplished elements of this film is precisely the perspective under which history is optically framed, almost casually, next to or behind a protagonist constantly en scene, ensued by an hand-held camera as obsessive as his strange object of desire. So morbidly implicated is the camera that at times loses the focus and yet never concedes vital room to his prey, pushing it against the walls of the city denying any liberating panoramic, on the contrary, any time it moves behind the protagonist is to show the oppressive proximity of the military repression in the polluted turquoise of a rotten sky where the star of Tony Manero shines on. Raul does not oppose the regime and yet is not an organical part of it, he nonetheless reflects the image of a sick society onto a deformed mirror, thus assimilating and unwittingly adopting the same ruthless methods, trying to achieve his egoistical ends through an indiscriminate use of violence overbearing any potential contenders.
    Hermetically trapped into a solipsistic delirium that makes him extraneous to any form of affection, sentimentality, moral or human respect, to any future project whatsoever that is not the realization of his demential obsession, Raul simultaneously represents the triumph of indifferent individualism and the slavish product of oppressive systems, based on the repression of anything that is not conform, that is, the Other. Based also, as our beloved democracy is, on the colonization of the imaginarium and of consciences, and on the advocacy of uncritical conformism, the Pinochet regime transcends in Tony Manero the spatial-temporal coordinates to come to represent our rotten times concealed behind the edulcorated (yet violently false) faí§ade of western freedom. Raul’s cloddish attempt at transplanting the American dance music on the Latin American tradition of dance involuntary mirrors the bigger picture wherein an oppressed Chile tries to forcefully adopt models inspired by western capitalism without any form of respect towards the socio-cultural specificities of its own people.
    With his heart and brain drenched in the dirty putridity of ambition Raul wears an immaculate white suit; forced to exercise on a rotten wooden stage he grotesquely tries to build a stage of colourful lights; defaced by hatred and blind violence, he aspires to the pure elegance of dance. The director stages with lucid cruelty a political musical disguised in the form of a social horror, choreographing, with very few means, an epoch ridden by fear, indifference, suspect; evoking a melting climate of moral void whose resemblance with present times cannot be casual.
    Raul’s movements are deceitfully suggesting an escape, a cultured alternative to the moral illiteracy of his times (our times?) but they soon sketch out a path towards homologation, loss and annihilation. Liberal inhabitant of an unhallowed world, Raul fetishistically worships a lonely dream-commodity, committing any felonious act to have it come through without ever realizing the innate deciduousness of its manufactured nature.
    Violence and bamboozlement will pave the final path to shame, the ultimate spectacular bourn where the contenders, after having been incited to ape theirs idol are approximatively and humiliatingly sentenced to sordid glory or to the failure of oblivion.
    Larrain’s project (carried out with Mateo Irbarren and the very protagonist himself, Alfredo Castro) posses conceptual strength and stylistic coherence, expressed through the predilection of a fragmented and paratactic narrative, with a dirty and affected chromaticism filling an inornate acclimatization. Laudable is the cameraman hand-held work (16mm transferred unto 35mm) disturbingly inhabiting the protagonists’ proximity thus obliging the spectator to intimately share Raul’s space of action, here we are next to him while he kills, sweats, tries to have sex, loots and shits…silent we stand.