“That glass floor is the only thing that turns you on”
The first of Pablo Larraín‘s cinematic trilogy set during Augusto Pinochet’s reign in Chile, Tony Manero seems happy to keep the political turmoil of the dictator’s regime in the background. Rather than overtly describe the period and the oppression against government detractors, the writer/director decides to focus on one very eccentric man named Raúl Peralta. Friends with enemies and fans alike, we watch his proclivities for violence as he uses the police state to his advantage. With curfews enforced, paper pamphlets deemed illegal to the point of death, and a general need for entertainment to escape the iron fist, 1978 Chile provides the perfect environment for a delusional serial killer feeding off American pop culture to find purpose in his life.
Answering “show business” when asked his occupation, this amateur theatre troupe performer turns his obsession for John Travolta‘s character in Saturday Night Fever into a lifestyle. Not happy to simply pretend to be the disco dancer, Raúl has his mind set on becoming him by winning a television contest crowning the country’s best lookalikes. Toting his meticulously tailored white suit around town, he also works on cultivating the image and routine into the performance schedule at the tiny restaurant/theater where he works. With an insane attention to detail finding him gluing mirrors to a volleyball and destroying the rotten wooden stage to fit in glass blocks able to let light shine through, perfection becomes the name of the game. Whether it be his partner’s choreography overpowering the film’s or the renovations needing an alternative method of payment to complete, Raúl’s life becomes consumed by Manero.
Very much in the vein of Martin Scorsese thrillers Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, Alfredo Castro does his best De Niro to succumb to the horrors of this lifestyle. Amoral and uncaring, he walks about town as though he owns it. Unafraid to take control of any situation with a swift transformation towards ruthless brutality using his bare hands as weapons, Raúl’s unbalanced behavior will have audiences despising him pretty much from frame one. Somehow that creepy, off-putting brood comes off as a quiet storm of machismo to the performers at his side, though, with each girl wanting a piece of his Americano façade. Between boss Wilma (Elsa Poblete), girlfriend Cony (Amparo Noguera), and her daughter Pauli (Paola Lattus), this murderous lunatic can kill every woman he wants because someone will always be home in bed to take their place.
Castro is fearsome in the role with a stare that could pierce through anything in his path. Some of his victims are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time while others ask for vengeance after unwittingly doing him some disservice. With blunt force trauma as his calling card, he can stay completely anonymous residing in a world where death happens every second and the fear of the police coming to kill you in the middle of the night is real. No one thinks twice about a random stranger being beaten to a bloody pulp inside his/her house—they’re just happy to have avoided it happening to them. So when Raúl runs to his destinations or shadily looks down when walking past pedestrians, nothing seems out of place. Everyone caught inside the dictatorship does the same.
Larraín and his co-writers Castro and Mateo Iribarren have really brought the stifling climate to life. While we fear for the characters that cross paths with Raúl, escaping his clutches is only the beginning. Politics run through the proceedings continuously and even become a major plot point when we learn about Goyo’s (Héctor Morales) activities offstage from practicing his own Manero persona. Military patrols the streets and everyone hides so as to be left alone. But when they come knocking at your door, don’t be surprised if they’ve come for the peaceful demonstrator instead of the obviously sociopathic gentleman running around town killing with impunity. Because if you know how to keep your nose clean when it matters, the police will look the other way. They have their orders and as long as you aren’t defaming the general you can do as you please.
Chile’s submission for the 2009 Academy Awards, one can see the film’s appeal as a dramatic powerhouse. An authentic mix of Chilean history and the salaciousness of depraved minds, Tony Manero has the kind of appeal critics love. Castro’s brilliant central performance only bolsters its success as he lets the character takeover. Always shooting an arm out in dance when the soundtrack’s music plays, learning how to speak English words to bolster the realism of his new persona, and holding a fearsome glare when not performing for whomever comes to see him, this is a glimpse at an actor at the top of his game. Despite the slow pace, brief spells of monotony, and routine serial killer traits such as a non-existent libido making him find thrills elsewhere, Castro owns the screen with enough smarmy intrigue to keep you watching until Enrique Maluenda crowns a winner.
[2 & 3] Courtesy of Lorber Films