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Tony Manero is a strong film. By “strong” I don’t mean a good film, not even a solid film. It’s strong in the sense that it could not pass unnoticed. In the first place, this is because it comes from a rather unnoticed country in terms of film production—that being Chile.
There is a whole new game being played in Latin American cinema. About ten years ago, Argentina emerged as the place in the region where something fresh and contemporary was taking place: Film-school graduates were making low-budget, art-house oriented productions. Then Brazil followed, with the emergence of Walter Salles, a pioneer figure whose films appeal to a more mainstream, international audience possessing a certain appetite for third-world exoticism on a Hollywood scale. After Salles came Fernando Meirelles, whose City of God (2002) pushed Salles’ middle-of-the road filmmaking towards a more violent and spectacular exploitation of the favela. It made a strong impression on other Brazilian filmmakers (seen in the over the top, fascistic Elite Squad), and almost everywhere, including in the US, where Meirelles directed his next film. In that sense, also, Tony Manero is strong.
But after a slow start, the Mexicans won the race. In a few years, a new generation of Mexican filmmakers established themselves on top of both the Cannes and Hollywood pyramids, and now acts as the greatest inspiration for regional cinema as a whole. Alejandro González Iñárritu struck a chord in 2000 with Amores perros (a strong film), Alfonso Cuaron became a perfect bilingual director, and, better than everybody else, Carlos Reygadas became the man to follow after his very strong films Japón (2002), Battle in Heaven (2005), and Silent Light (2007), three films charged with a powerful dose of blood, sex, and even religion (who can ask for anything more?). While Iñárritu and his Hollywood spiritual soap operas represent success in its most blatant form, Reygadas is the most important mentor for his fellow countrymen thriving on the festival circuit. These guys make tough, deep, and very Latin American films. Strong, so to speak.
And now it appears that the next big thing is coming from Chile. In the last few years, something was moving under the surface, as Chilean film production has blossomed. At the beginning, weak production values, substandard formats, and results too conventional or childish were the rule. And then came Tony Manero. Shot in Super 16mm and blown up to 35mm, Pablo Larrain’s film debuted to critical acclaim in this year’s Quinzaine, and has created some kind of euphoria in the Chilean film milieu with people who are not accustomed to being taken seriously abroad.
To explain why Tony Manero is indeed strong, it’s sufficient to sketch the plot. It’s Santiago, 1978—Pinochet times. A middle-aged lowlife named Raúl Peralta is crazy about Tony Manero, the character played by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever (1977). He watches the film obsessively, learning the phonetics of every English line. He rehearses the choreography of the film’s dance scenes with an amateur company, and applies to enter a TV contest for Travolta impersonators. An interesting idea, so far, but the film isn’t that simple. Peralta is a bully who lives in the same house as the people he dances with, acting as a macho leader, and humiliating the whole group by having sex with the three women in the house (teenage, young, and old). But at the beginning of the film we witness something even more piquant: Peralta helps an old woman who has been mugged by a couple of teenagers, then enters her house and beats her to death, just to steal her TV. The rest of the film we see him dancing and murdering people for stupid reasons. Strong, don’t you think?
Manero, the creature, is a wild beast. Played by co-writer Alfredo Castro, the man who wants to look like Travolta on stage instead resembles Al Pacino’s Tony Montana. But Larrain does his best to make everything around Peralta in Tony Manero, the film, as sordid and violent as the character. The places, the characters, the relationships between them all are extraordinary ugly, not to mention the whole political condition—Pinochet’s secret police go around killing people and Peralta follows them, stealing wallets from the corpses. Towards the end, the boy who is part of Peralta’s group decides to apply for the same TV dance contest as his boss. When Peralta realizes his intentions, he shits on the kid’s carefully prepared white suit. At the end, the TV show takes place, staged as horribly as everything else in the film. After a very banal suspense scene, Peralta loses. In the final shot, we see him following the winner to—what else—kill him.
Because of all those crude scenes, Tony Manero is hard to forget. However, I would like to forget it as soon as possible, and never again think about all those moments I’ve taken the trouble to describe—not to mention others that I didn’t. The only reason to share them with the reader is out of pure perversity. This may sound cowardly or unfair, but I can’t help it. It’s not the scenes by themselves that bother me, nor the ugly handheld camera work, with an excessive amount of close-ups that make things look uglier. The problem with the film is the lack of purpose behind all the efforts from the filmmaker, the crew, and the cast. This resembles all too well the efforts made by the film’s characters to be part of a Hollywood fantasy. As a film, Tony Manero is as clumsy and hardworking as Peralta is as a dancer.
But I haven’t gotten to the worst part yet. When somebody situates a film like this during a very specific period of contemporary history, an allegory inevitably permeates the air. But which one is it in this case? Is Larrain trying to tell us that those days were horrible? So be it, but where exactly does he situate a creature like Peralta? Is he a product of the system? It looks like he has being doing the same thing (dancing, abusing, robbing, killing) for years. The correct interpretation is that he is a mirror image of the dictator: Peralta represents Pinochet, or, at least a cartoon version of the tyrant. Both men are middle-aged butchers fascinated by American imperialist fantasies of the worst kind, those embodied by a mainstream, vulgar film and its stupid protagonist on one hand; by the pretension of being a statesman and a pillar of Western civilization on the other. Like Peralta, Pinochet didn’t realize that his dream was cheap, that he was merely a South American jerk, and, like Peralta, he was a third-rate South American show-business man—and both of them were equally capable of murder to prop up their illusions.
But the film doesn’t work exactly in that way either. What it actually shows is that people under Manero/Pinochet, their victims and associates, deserved what they got. In spite of some illegal political activities that take place in the house, the film portrays the Chilean people as a weak, petty, selfish, right wing bunch of losers. In other words, you could say that, according to the way Larrain depicts and despises them, they had it coming. They liked to be subjugated by the big man, even if the big man was a fraud—and a sex scene were Peralta is revealed to be impotent makes things more heavy handed and easy to understand.
And, last but not least, I like Saturday Night Fever.