Contemporary political films, especially those made in the United States, tend to overindulge in on-the-nose partisan messaging. Director Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator” and “Lions for Lambs,” for instance, housed admirable statements about the corrosion of American politics, but Redford undermined these with a zealot’s sledgehammer. This is why Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín’s more nuanced approach in his 2008 film “Tony Manero,” which examines the ugliness of his nation’s political history through an unlikely guise, is so refreshing.
When I say unlikely, I mean it. Set in 1978, five years into the reign of dictator Augusto Pinochet, “Tony Manero” tells the story of Raúl (Alfredo Castro), who is obsessed with John Travolta’s legendary character from “Saturday Night Fever.” But Raúl is no fun-loving party animal. He is a serial killer who acts impulsively and seemingly without remorse. This is where Larraín crafts a complex portrait of 20th Century Chilean political upheaval: As Raúl commits murders, the filmmaker draws parallels between the character and the police / government.
In a particularly striking sequence that epitomizes the film’s style of conveying political themes, Raúl pursues a man, seemingly with the intent to murder and rob him, causing the man to run away in fear — directly into the Chilean police. The corrupt officers then seize the opportunity to interrogate the innocent man, only to then murder and rob him themselves. When Raúl approaches the man’s body to loot it, he finds it littered with political pamphlets slandering Pinochet, which the police planted. Ultimately, law enforcement achieves the same end as a killer with deep-seated psychosis, albeit under a different agenda — Larraín’s observation of just how systemically disturbed Chile’s government was.
Larraín imbues “Tony Manero” with the sort of dread that overwhelms life under a dictatorship, primarily in the way that he leverages Castro’s striking performance as Raúl. Castro perpetually has a dead look in his eyes, even when he is practicing his Travolta-emulating disco moves. His dancing is so incongruous to his environment that it would come across as comical if not for Castro’s menacingly expressionless face. Producing an even more disturbing reaction is Larraín’s humanization of Raúl through his affection for animals, which gives the character traces of sanity that make his actions all the more deplorable — yet another metaphor for the corruption within Chile’s government.
The film’s documentary style adds grittiness. Cinematographer Sergio Armstrong shoots the unnamed Chilean city as if it were the shambles of a ruined civilization. The color palette is desaturated, giving the film a drab look that coincides with the aforementioned undercurrent of dread. Armstrong uses a handheld camera tucked up close to the actors’ faces almost all the time, as if to coerce the audience into facing the ugly action dead-on. The only formalistic technique incorporated is the abundant use of jump cuts, which illustrate the fractured mental state of the protagonist.
Despite the film’s quiet power, it is imperfect. Raúl’s actions are so detestable that he is difficult to sympathize with, which is fine, but Larraín focuses so heavily on him that the ancillary characters lack sufficient depth to provide a compelling human connection to the story. Additionally, the spare production design feels basic rather than appropriately minimalist, without enough detail to immerse the audience in the cultural environment of the time. Even though the costumes and makeup certainly suggest the 1970s, the film’s evocation of the setting isn’t distinctly Chilean enough, detracting from Larraín’s very specific historical subject.
In spite of these few flaws, Larraín’s way of conveying political messages more subtly than the average filmmaker makes “Tony Manero” a far more disturbing, effective work that creeps up on the viewer with its disarming insight into societal decay. Through the film’s study of a profoundly unsettled individual, Larraín digs deep into the rotten core of Chile during one of the most troubled periods in the South American nation’s history. It’s enough to make one wonder: If a similar film were made about modern America, who would its Raúl be and what cultural icon would he idolize? Certainly not Uncle Sam.