Published on April 14th, 2009 | by Darren Byrne3
Directed by Pablo Larrain, Tony Manero is frightening examination of the search for identity in an oppressive regime. It tells the story of one man, who will do literally anything to be a ‘somebody’. Set against the backdrop of General Pinochet’s early dictatorship in the late 1970’s, the film is dark, dirty and unforgiving.
Larrain has built his lead, Raul Peralta (played by Alfredo Castro), as microcosm of Chile at the time, eager to find itself, embracing US icons and commercialism, ready to step over anyone and anything that gets in its way.
Tony Manero was the character played by John Travolta in 1978’s Saturday Night Fever. Like Raul in this movie, Manero feels his only chance to get somewhere is as the king of the disco floor. However, in contrast with Fever’s youthful hero, Raul is a 52 year old man who believes his only way out of his current situation, the rut his life has fallen into, is to become the Chillean Tony Manero. In order to achieve his goal, he manipulates people, robs whatever he needs and viciously kills anyone who he perceives as being in his way.
The setup is different to anything I’ve seen in some time. It’s dark and unpleasant, leaving you shifting awkwardly from scene to scene. This in itself makes for an interesting viewing experience. However, the central character has no redeeming characteristics whatsoever and this makes it very difficult to care for the him and his plight. Those around him blindly follow, so it’s hard to empathise with them either. Raul is nothing short of a psychopath. He even looks like Al Pacino’s character from Scarface, Tony Montana – I would assume this is no accident.
Ultimately the film has some clever central ideas and Larrain has assembled a fantastic cast who play everything with a natural intensity that does build tension, but overall the lack of emotion, the lack of a sufficient ending and the lack of focus on the only solid real life storyline (i.e. the revolutionary antics of the supporting characters), left me lost and let down. The best parts of this movie are moments of sexual explicitness and homicidal violence, but against a numb background, it feels forced, empty and pointless. Maybe Larrain intended the viewer to leave without their Hollywood ending, just as the Raul struggles to find his own Hollywood ending. Even if this is the intention, it still does not turn a disjointed movie into a solid piece of film.
If you are interested in seeing Chile during its darkest days, if you want to see what Pinochet’s regime did to people or if you just want to prove me wrong, Tony Manero plays in The Lighthouse Cinema, Smithfield this week.