Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Tony M.

Saw a preview of a Chilean film, Tony Manero, last night. Directed by Pablo Larrain, it's set in Chile in 1978, when Pinochet's dictatorship was at its height. Raul Perlata (Alfredo Castro) is a middle-aged loner obsessed with Tony Manero, John Travolta's character in Saturday Night Fever. His only ambition is to imitate his idol and to win by starring in a cabaret in a seedy cantina, and win Tony Manero lookalike contest staged by a TV programme. The fact that's he's over fifty and looks more like Al Pacino than John Travolta doesn't enter his head; he's prepared to do anything, including murder, to make his dream come true.

Unrelenting closeups and handheld camerawork track Raul as he moves with singleminded purpose through a broken and poverty-striken city where curfews are enforced by the army and police summarily execute anyone suspected of attempting to protest or undermine the dictatorship. Although there's a degree of black comedy in his attempts to transform a miniscule rotting stage into a facsimile of the glittering disco where Tony Manero strutted his stuff, this is essentially a bleak, Dostoevskian moral tale. Raul kills without remorse, starting with an old woman whom he rescues after she's attacked on the street. He helps her back to her flat; she rewards him with tin of time-expired tuna and boasts about the colour TV she owns and her dead husband, a naval officer; he smashes her skull with the tin and afterwards shares the tuna with her cat, and then steals the TV and hocks it to buy the glass bricks he needs to imitate Saturday Night Fever's illuminated disco floor. It's shocking, and perfectly apt. He also kills a projectionist and a cinema owner because the cinema has replaced Saturday Night Fever with Grease, and the scrapyard owner who tries to cheat him on the precious glass bricks. Throughout, he shows no emotion but rage, barely connects with the little troupe rehearsing for his cabaret turn, and is impotent with his girlfriend. Other characters are equally unconnected from each other; the cabaret owner is interested only in profit; a mother betrays her daughter to the secret police out of jealousy.

Not so much a savage satire on the desperate hunger for fame, then, as an uncomfortable and powerful dissection of the amoral atomisation of society under a fascist dictatorship. I'm still thinking about it.


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