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.