Along with the world’s most famous Scientological pilot and The Bee Gees' 70s glitz, Saturday Night Fever also gave us the tale of a flawed nobody who used air pointing and white polyester to find the American Dream. Pablo Larrain, director of Chilean depress-fest Tony Manero, has given us a similar aspirational no-hoper, but one with distinctly less to sing and dance about.
It’s 1978, and violence and paranoia fester under Pinochet’s ruling junta. Monosyllabic fifty-something Raúl idolises Travolta’s dancefloor stud, Tony Manero. He performs crude disco homages in a fleabag bar on Saturdays, accompanied by a fellow down-at-heel family. His lover, downtrodden mother Cony, and her grown son and daughter cling to Raúl with a fearful adoration. When Raúl signs up to for a TV Tony Manero lookalike competition, it sets off a violent chain of events.
Nothing will stand in the way of Raúl’s single-minded obsession to become the star. From his first shocking surge of brutality, the atmosphere remains taut with nervous anticipation. Sirens pervade the silence. Army convoys rattle down near-abandoned streets. Mangy dogs snarl. Raúl’s bodycount mounts up. Fellow down-and-outers hope for rebellion against the corrupt regime, but our anti-hero’s obsession blinkers everything but his Hollywood heartthrob.
Tony Manero is brilliantly brutal, with the occasional flash of extreme violence. The overbearing silence adds to the tension but the lack of exposition borders on confusion. Central to every shot, Alfredo Castro does ably shoulder the film’s overbearing weight. But why does everyone edge around this skinny loser? Yes, we know he could snap at any moment, but to the eyes of the world he seems pathetic. Raúl is a particularly unconvincing Latin lothario, despite uneasy romantic interludes with the film’s three female supports. This sexual tension does, however, tinge the already thick air with a looming threat of carnal violence.
It’s a mix not suited to the faint hearted. The filmmaker’s big message is equally gloomy. The lustre of the Hollywood dream is painted in the blood and disappointment of the third world and a superficial groundswelling of star-struck Raúls are the vehicles through which corporate America will eventually invade Chile. OK, it’s a depressing subject, we gettit. But does it have to be such a downer?