On the heels of the Dardenne brothers' austere thriller Lorna's Silence comes Chilean writer-director Pablo Larraín's exercise in raw, in-the-moment bleakness. Shot on Super 16mm film, employing a handheld camera that purposely loses focus, and creating a seedy, claustrophobic atmosphere of despair, Tony Manero is the kind of edgy, angering work cinephiles flock to because it seems so much more uncompromising than it is.
Raúl (a riveting Alfredo Castro) is a pallid, brooding, 52-year-old slacker; living in a squalid Santiago cantina, waiting for his opportunity to compete on an American Idol-type TV show. Each week the local program selects a top celebrity impersonator and Raúl is determined to become Chile's own Tony Manero (John Travolta's character in Saturday Night Fever).
So twisted are his expectations of fame that Raúl impulsively and brutally murders anyone he perceives as thwarting his mission. Meanwhile, Augusto Pinochet's police squads have got the country locked down, hunting for anyone who opposes the regime.
Larraín is clearly trying to juxtapose police state oppressiveness with American cultural imperialism, drawing subtle parallels between the psychopathology of the Pinochet regime and the murderous sleazebag Raúl. And there's no doubting the young filmmaker's skill. His camera and focus relentlessly orbit Raúl, pulling us into the societal malaise he so convincingly represents. Tony Manero cautions that the flipside of pop culture escapism is soul-sucking insanity.
But Raúl is static. From the very first moments of the film it's clear that he's consumed by sociopathic obsession and rage. The focus of his obsession is almost beside the point. This is no Rupert Pupkin contorted by society into believing he deserves fame, but rather an emotionless monster who has chosen to fixate on Saturday Night Fever. Sure, Larraín suggests that the connection is socioeconomic, but with someone as unredeemably ugly as Raúl, who cares? A soulless thug driven to borrow his cultural identity is still just a soulless thug.
Some critics may argue that Tony Manero is a grim comedy of sorts, with Larraín tossing in subtle jokes meant to tickle the intellect rather than the funny bone. The most obvious one comes early, when Raúl shows up at the TV studio to compete only to discover that it's Chuck Norris day. Even Raúl's robotic attempts to imitate Travolta's dance moves — in one case, in soiled underwear — could be seen as dark humor. But in service of what? If Larraín's exploration of the unleashed id is meant to be comedic, it makes for woefully poor political commentary, and its evocation of Pinochet's reign of terror only cheapens the memory of those who suffered under it.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 2-3, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 4. It also shows at 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 9-10, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 11. Call 313-833-3237.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].