We can interrogate and, to some degree, illuminate the most tenebrous horrors of the past through making up stories, but what sort of stories should we devise? Which are best equipped to stir us out of despondency and actively engage us? The greater the horror, the more urgently and rigorously this question needs to be addressed. When the young filmmaker Pablo Larraín interviewed his fellow Chileans about living through the institutionalized terror of the Pinochet years, he found most of their memories to be foggy and imprecise. “What I got from this research was not any particular idea of what happened in terms of facts, but a tone, an atmosphere,” Larraín explains, “a combination of fear, sadness, and strangeness, because they didn’t know what was going to happen the next day.” Larraín’s response to these interviews was not to somberly chronicle the plight of victims of the Pinochet years, but rather to scour the era’s atmosphere and dread in search of a unique sort of character, one that might cloud the conventional frontiers diving victim from oppressor. His response was Tony Manero.
It’s Santiago, 1978, and 52-year-old Raúl is devoting all his energies to preparing for a local televised celebrity impersonation contest. It seems Raúl wants not simply to evoke but to literally transform himself into Tony Manero, John Travolta’s ambitious, disco dancing sensation from Bay Ridge, the hero of John Badham’s 1977 hit movie Saturday Night Fever. We see Raúl in a rundown cinema watching the film, studying Travolta’s moves and parroting his dialogue—but does Raúl ever stay to the end? Does Raúl even realize that Tony Manero never actually becomes a big star? Or is Raúl hoping to correct Saturday Night Fever’s downbeat ending by miraculously transcending his own marginalized existence of despair, poverty, confinement, communal living, dysfunctional sex, and routine applications of jet black hair dye to cover up the accumulating grey? Raúl will do anything to fulfill his dream of usurping reality with his distorted reading of an imported fantasy. His desire initially seems akin to that of so many go-for-it movie protagonists. You wonder at first if Tony Manero will be a comedy of self-discovery and triumph over adversity, its protagonist yet another addition to the movies’ ongoing collection of lovably obsessive, nerdy, underdog dreamers. But any such suspicions are dashed once we see Raúl help an old lady home after being mugged, only to get her alone in her little apartment and calmly bash her head in so as to steal her colour TV. Colour TVs were apparently tough to come by in Pinochet’s Chile.
Would Raúl have been a sociopath had he not lived under a murderous dictatorship? Are there certain kinds of monsters that are only awakened by the right circumstances, prompted by social conditions that seem to offer tacit permission to act out otherwise repressed atrocities? It’s a question that lingers in some of the novels of the posthumously celebrated Chilean-born author Roberto Bolaño, and Larraín, in his documentary-like follow-up to the very different, far more baroque, and not very successful debut Fuga, implies this question too, without offering any answers that might oversimplify his bizarre, grotesque and utterly absorbing story. Larraín instead focuses on imbuing Tony Manero with numerous details that heighten the film’s sense of place, its tension, and its black humour. Raúl’s incestuous housemates rehearse in their ramshackle performance space and perform their almost endearingly lame song and dance show for paltry audiences of locals happy for whatever sort of diversion to fill their hours before curfew arrives. Some of these housemates meet with secret insurgent groups, though Raúl himself isn’t to be distracted from his mastery of Manero embodiment, getting the right number of buttons on his white pants or the right high-density glass cubes to build an illuminated dance floor, just like that of Saturday Night Fever’s 2001 Odyssey nightclub, and replace the crappy wooden plank floor he memorably rips up in a wild fit when something in one of the group’s disco routines goes wrong. The success of that scene, like so many others, including an especially messy one you’ve just got to see to believe, rests firmly on the interpretative talents of lead actor Alfredo Castro, who plays Raúl with such complete, deadpan immersion it’s positively chilling. Castro’s work alone is reason to see this film.
Kino’s disc of Tony Manero is pretty much devoid of extras, and while that’s regrettable given that some minimal historical context at the very least might help certain viewers to appreciate its layers of critique and genuine audacity, it is finally a work that can stand alone and leave you reeling. Tony Manero barely screened in North American cinemas, but everyone with whom I watched it during its appearance at the Toronto International Film Festival, including a few Chilean friends, still haven’t forgotten the experience. Here’s hoping it continues to intrigue and appall viewers on DVD.