One of the biggest defenses for going to the movies is that the experience offers us an escape from our daily lives. Who doesn’t want to escape from their lame jobs and existence for a couple of hours? Especially if you are living in 1970’s Chile where democracy is considered a dirty joke and mass torture and killings are deemed necessary to protect the nation from the “Red Menace.” Tony Manero, directed by Pablo Larrain, is a film concerned with that sort of willful self-delusion as well as the effects of living under siege in a place and time that is also undergoing its own form of identity crisis. The end result is quite a treat, although not without its flaws.
The film is on the surface, a story of a completely unsympathetic man named Raul who murders and steals on a whim. He lives alone above a cantina and his only companions are his neighbors who also frequent the cantina. For a few hours each Saturday, they forget their troubles and faithfully recreate dance moves from Saturday Night Fever. At first, the film moves slowly; many scenes are simply snapshots of Raul’s ordinary life as he lugs around his disco suit as if it was a lucky charm and causally kills people at the slightest provocation; whether it is for a TV or the removal of his prized film from circulation at the local theater.
At the same time, Raul’s friends are members of the underground who post anti-government leaflets and this provides much of the action and plot in the film. In short, director Pablo Larrain has made Raul into a bit of a stand-in for both the Chilean population and the military junta and is filled with both fear of change and a longing for something better. If Tony Manero was set in contemporary times, these messages would not have the same weight. Chile at the time was stupefied by the violent changes in its political systems as well as the realization that the idealism of the 60’s and early 70’s made way for a world much more cold and bleak. A nation was transformed from a open society into a country which was forced to adhere to obedience. While some citizens choose to fight back, Raul chooses to live, based on references to disco and John Travolta.
However, Tony Manero is not an allegory film. It just as concerned with the minutiae of a man ensnared in the power of celebrity culture as well as the effects of dictatorship. Larrain shows Raul as a pathetic man who can only feel happy when he is pretending to be someone else. Indeed, this drive is the only sign of ambition from a middle-aged man who has nothing else to be proud of. Of course, this is not necessarily a bad thing, after all, he stands to gain 70,000 pesos in a Tony Manero contest on national TV at the film’s half point. The film makes a great case for showing Raul as simply another wannabe in a field filled with other people who have nothing to hold onto except their own delusions of grandeur. There is a great scene at the beginning when Raul is waiting outside of a TV studio while overhearing a TV producer say “We have a Tony Manero here, next week it’s a bunch of Chuck Norris’s” Of course, the government couldn’t be happier; it’s the Chilean version of the Roman bread and circus.
With that, the film is brought to full circle. While it seems jarring to see the protagonist in the same light as the military and the general population, the director is quite skilled at showing a country and a man beaten down into the abyss. As Raul begins to kill and steal in the name of his film and hobby, the country begins to devour itself in recrimination and can only thrive in the context of hunting for enemies. Soon, the military is convinced that there is a threat somewhere, if only those pesky students and dissents gave up names. By that point, it had stopped looking for reasons a long time ago. Sound familiar?
As for the actors, Alfredo Castro is amazing as a loser of a man who seems to be beaten down. There are scenes where he is still coveted by women and while that might seem far-fetched on paper, Castro makes it work wonderfully and really turns up the heat creep-wise in a dance scene with his lover’s daughter. As for the co-stars, they are equally wonderful as dissidents who speak as if they are being watched all the time while still trying to live their lives as normally as possible.
If there is a flaw, it is that the film shows too little of the government’s hand at work and while there are scenes that show how terrifying it is to live under oppression, the sparse appearances of the government make it seem as if the film was about a psychotic murderer who just happens to live in a dictatorship instead of a film about the Pinochet years. That is a minor quibble and that should not detract from the quality of a film that shows how far someone will go to assume another identity as a nation is struggling to define their own. And polyester, don’t forget polyester.