Tony Manero

Tony Manero


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

Santiago 1978. As Pinochet’s troops patrol the streets and plain clothes policemen brutally interrogate anyone suspected of dissident activity, Raul, a middle-aged man who proudly lists his profession as ‘show business’, is more concerned with the upcoming TV talent contest to find ‘The Chilean Tony Manero’.

Obsessed with John Travolta’s character in the new American movie Saturday Night Fever, he watches the film time and again at the local cinema and has assembled a crew of like-minded enthusiasts (including members of his surrogate family) to recreate the dance routines at his neighbourhood bar. But his main focus is the talent contest. Winning that will offer... well, who knows?

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The nature of delusion and fixation has been explored many times in cinema, but rarely with the grim and gripping intensity of Larraín’s award-winning second feature. It paints a vivid portrait (though in muted, murky colours) of a society where violence and duplicity permeate down to every level and the only escape is a fantasy of American glamour and success.

The irony of the fact that Raul draws inspiration from a film that was itself about wasted lives and thwarted dreams (a considerably darker piece of work than you might remember) is not lost on the director or the writers, but is never hammered home. Similarly, it resists the temptation to use big, grandstanding set pieces to make its points about the ways in which Pinochet exercised his power. Instead, they are shown in brief but chilling sideways glimpses; a truck full of armed soldiers sending everyone on the street diving for cover; a car load of policemen beating a man to death for carrying a bag full of anti-government leaflets.

Raul sees all this, but never gets involved. Instead he floats around the edges, taking advantage of a society desensitised to violence and unconcerned with any crimes that don’t threaten state security. As we follow his single-minded determination to acquire the materials to fuel his fantasy (from Travolta’s trademark white suit/black shirt combo to a pile of glass bricks, with which he creates a low-rent version of the disco’s floor lighting effect) it becomes increasingly clear he will literally stop at nothing to get what he wants...

Castro’s performance is superb. A veteran of Chilean TV and theatre, he is in virtually every scene and his feral, amoral presence drives the film forward. Hawk-featured, with a whippet-thin but well-muscled body he’s a combination of a charity-shop Pacino and Iggy Pop’s less reputable brother. Resisting any temptation to give the character a gentler side or a redeeming feature, Larraín and the writers instead achieve the same feat as Scorsese at his best; directing unblinking, non-judgmental scrutiny at a deeply flawed man and asking the audience to think about what has made him so.

The supporting cast deserve mention too. As Raul’s girlfriend and her young daughter, Amparo Noguera and Paulo Lattus are both convincingly terrified of his unpredictable temper but attracted to his shabby glamour, as is the bar owner Wilma (Elsa Poblete). Rounding off the ensemble is Goyo (Héctor Morales) a young man who also has ambitions for the talent contest, but sees a world outside of it and is also distributing fliers for the rebels. Raul’s reaction to both these revelations forms the film’s devastating climax.

Working with a handheld ‘shot on the streets’ urgency that again recalls Scorsese and the intimacy of the Dardenne brothers, Larraín vividly evokes a grimy, fearful city, sweltering in sunless heat, its only escape a cheap and tacky version of American consumerism. The sheer unrelenting grimness and the unlikeability of the central character can be wearing at times, but this is a film that takes a conventional cinematic story (the star-struck misfit) somewhere very different, very interesting – and very, very dark.

Reviewed on: 06 Apr 2009
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The story of a psychotic fiftysomething and his obssession with John Travolta's character in Saturday Night Fever.
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Director: Pablo Larraín

Writer: Pablo Larraín, Alfredo Castro, Mateo Iribarren

Starring: Alfredo Castro, Amparo Noguera, Héctor Morales, Paola Lattus, Elsa Poblete

Year: 2008

Runtime: 98 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Chile, Brazil

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