First off the bat an item of trivia/housekeeping : I believe that out offering under discussion today, Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s 2008 film Tony Manero is the first movie named after a character from another movie. But I could be wrong — and if anyone reading this knows of any other examples, I’d love to hear about them. I get the nagging feeling I’m missing something obvious, but then I think about it an honestly, nothing else springs to mind. So if you can prove your humble host to be incorrect about this, please do so!
And with that out of the way, let’s have a look at this profoundly disaffecting and alienating shot-on 16mm (and blown up to 35mm for theatrical release, resulting in a very apropos graininess throughout) slice of heartless, dare I say even soulless, indie sleaze from my sister-in-law’s home country.
Not that I mean any of that as criticism, mind you — this flick is supposed to be grimy, sleazy, disaffecting, and alienating, because that’s the psychic, and sociopolitical, landscape that its protagonist (and this character surely stretches the definition of that term to its limit) inhabits.
Veteran Santiago-based stage actor Alfredo Castro (who also co-wrote the script along with director Larrain and Mateo Iribarren) portrays our central character here, a ruthlessly- sociopathic- yet-otherwise-completely-hollowed-out-shell named Raul Peralta, who makes his way in the world as a fifty-something dance troupe leader/small-time gigolo/smaller-time hood in Pinochet’s Chile circa 1978, and as the title suggests, he’s quite literally obsessed with the film Saturday Night Fever and, more specifically, John Travolta’s Tony Manero. He sees the movie alone in empty theaters on weekday afternoons. He mouths along to English dialogue he barely (if at all) understands. He practices Travolta’s dance moves in front of his mirror. He choreographs elaborate exact imitations of the movie’s disco scenes for his cadre of (all much younger than he) dancers to perform and permits no deviation or improvisation. He even owns a complete white suit-black shirt ensemble that’s an close to an exact replica of that worn by his idol as one can scrounge up in a country with a completely closed-off society and economy. But his Manero acts feels incomplete, and to that end he’s got two overarching goals he’s pursuing to achieve his dream of losing himself in the character forever and never coming back —
First, he wants to replicate the interior of the 2001 Club disco from the movie as closely as possible within the confines of his shared dance studio space/living quarters . He wants the mirrored disco ball hanging from the ceiling, the glass floor, the whole nine yards. And secondly, he wants to win the “Chilean Tony Manero” look-alike/dance-alike contest being held on a popular lunchtime TV program. And being the true aficionado/creepy uberfan that he is, there are no lengths he isn’t willing to go, nor depths he isn’t willing to sink, to make these wishes into reality.
Raul’s not a remotely pleasant, remotely sympathetic, or even remotely involving character. He’s willing to kill an old woman for her color TV, and then swap that TV in for glass blocks for his dream floor. He’s willing to play off the affections of three separate women in and around the periphery of his dance troupe while giving no indication of remotely giving a shit about any of them. He’s willing to steal watches from dead bodies. And when one of his young dance proteges is thinking of entering the same TV Tony Manero contest as him he’s willing to — well, I won’t say it. He doesn’t kill him. But it’s damn ugly.
Simply put, this is a character that offers no point of entry for audience identification in the least. He’s cruel without necessarily even trying to be and doesn’t care about the results of his cruelty. He uses people for reasons any other human being would find completely pointless. He displays absolutely no emotional affect whatsoever, even when the shit is hitting the fan all around him. He’s become the kind of nameless, faceless, pitiless void one needs to be in order to survive on the low-rent fringes of the criminal underworld in a military dictatorship. He doesn’t live, he just exists.
Larrain is obviously showing the kind of walking corpses that fascist rule reduce people to, but he’s also drawing some obvious prallels between Raul and General Pinochet himself. One is willing to subsume or overlook all else and all others in pursuit of empty, pointless small-time ambitions, while the other is essentially doing the same thing on a national scale. After all, does compassion-free single-mindedness make any more sense in pursuit of propping up a failing regime than it does in service of imitating a fictional god of disco?
There are moments of black comedy interspersed throught here, such as when Raul shows up a week early to the TV studio and finds himself there on “Chilean Chuck Norris” day, and when the theater he’s accustomed to seeing Saturday Night Fever at suddenly starts running Grease instead, we see Raul undergo the closest thing anybody this completely closed-off can have to an existential crisis when he witnesses Travolta playing another character on film and he just can’t handle it (an act of blasphemy that will cost the elderly projectionist and his wife who runs the box office their lives) but mainly it’s just black, and unforgivingly so. Nobody this side of George Romero and Tom Savini has ever constructed such a perfect cinematic zombie, and Castro doesn’t use make-up and effects to do it (although he’s not above dyeing his hair and breaking out the blowcomb to more fully ape the appearance of the object of his obsession).
When things get too heavy in the film’s final reel, though, and the secret police start to move on the other members of his dance ensemble, specifically his aforementioned youthful protege Goyo (Hector Morales) for subversive political activity, we see Raul’s disaffected ultra-alienation for what it is — sheer cowardice. Here is a guy literally unwilling , even downright unable, to give a shit about anything outside of the pathetic singular concern that he’s whittled the focus of his existence down to.
Castro has crafted a powerfully singular performance unlike anything else you’ve ever seen here, but it’s literally impossible to “get into” what his character is all about because, quite frankly, you’re not supposed to. He’s dead in the brain, heart, and soul and watching that brought to the screen so completely convincingly certainly results in an absolutely unique viewing experience, but in no way is it an enjoyable one. There’s nothing for the viewer to grab onto, or find common cause with, or even understand. Raul racks up a body count not because he wants to, per se, or even just simply because he can — he just does it because, well, he does.
Tony Manero received mixed and frankly often perplexed reviews when it played at venues like Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival, and was greeted with the same general “yeah, it was well done, but what the fuck was it all about?” attitude when it played its limited US theatrical run last year. It’s now been released on DVD from Lorber films (who handled said limited US theatrical run, as well) in a bare-bones, extras-free package. For what it’s worth, I found it to be utterly unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, and while I can’t say I exactly liked it per se, or found the character it was focused on remotely comprehensible, I do wholeheartedly recommend it as a true one-of-a-kind viewing experience.