Netflix’s El Conde, the new movie by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín, is clearly satire. It must be viewed as such. In it, Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator responsible for the deaths of thousands and the torture of many more people during his 17-year rule is presented as a 250-year-old vampire who, tired of being remembered as a thief, chooses to die instead.
It’s currently being treated as a cinematic event with El Conde set to be screened during the 80th edition of the Venice Film Festival. It will also get a theatrical release in Chile before being released on Netflix worldwide. Ironically, it coincides with the 50th anniversary in September of the coup that brought Pinochet into power.
On the surface, the idea of placing historical figures in fantasy settings isn’t groundbreaking. And without having watched the movie, with only the trailer, photos, and synopsis in hand, it’s impossible to form definitive conclusions on its treatment of very serious and real historical subject matters.
The problem, of course, is that the reality of the movie’s tone and its attempt at political commentary cannot be separated from Pinochet’s actions or his place in history. And for audiences unfamiliar with the facts, presenting Pinochet as some sort of fantastical figure whose crimes can easily be disregarded for the sake of laughs is not just disrespectful to the victims, it’s downright insulting.
In a way, it’s reminiscent of the true-crime boom in recent years that has seen serial killers presented as misunderstood figures via documentaries and series; their crimes minimized in order to sell their story in an appealing way. But Pinochet’s crimes shouldn’t be underscored for the sake of satire – even if there is political commentary attached. The official numbers in Chile are, after all, clear. Over 40,000 people were killed, tortured, or imprisoned for political reasons.
And just in case you want to know more about the real history of Pinochet’s dictatorship and his crimes, you can watch the documentaries Chile: A “Memory Journey” of Augusto Pinochet’s Crimes, Uncovering Pinochet’s Secret Death Camps, General Augusto Pinochet – General & Dictator of Chile Documentary, The other September 11th: Families looking for answers 45 years after Chile coup and Augusto Pinochet: The Great Betrayal.
This history being ignored, forgotten, or rewritten is at risk if audiences don’t go into a movie like this with the context needed about his human rights violations. And for the people who already know the history, this is what we risk minimizing to the point that it feels like, perhaps, Pinochet is just someone we can laugh at, or with.
Perhaps there is more to the movie. Larraín certainly has the experience and knowledge of his country’s history. But the trailer, synopsis, and photos don’t exactly present a flattering picture of the movie as a respectful tribute to a dark period in the history of Chile – and Latin America in general. Instead, it focuses on the supernatural elements, and when it remembers the history, it does so to remark on how much Pinochet hates being thought of as a thief.
But his legacy is not that of a thief, or at least, it’s not just that. It’s that of a general who came into power by overthrowing a democratically elected government, one whose President died in suspicious circumstances as the coup d’etat was taking place. And it’s that of a brutal dictator who killed, tortured, and persecuted anyone who dared oppose him. There’s nothing sympathetic about it.
That’s the history that should be told.
Netflix’s El Conde will be in theaters in Chile on September 7th and worldwide on Netflix on September 15th.