Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Raúl Peralta has next to nothing going for him as he is nearing the end of his fifty-second year on the planet. It's 1978 and Raúl, like everyone else living in Santiago de Chile, is in a constant state of fear and paranoia due to General Augusto Pinochets' oppressive control of his homeland. With barely enough change in his pocket for food, and with the military and police on every corner, Raúl only finds solace when he visits his local theater on an almost daily basis to watch John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. After becoming obsessed with that film's main character, Raúl sets in motion his dream of being selected as the best 'Tony Manero' on a local talent show. To help achieve this dream, Raúl leads a small group of local dancers at a bar paying tribute to the film and Travolta's character. Staring into his mirror at every chance he gets, Raúl sees himself as a Chilean matinee idol, a big dreamer in a world where dreams are crushed on a daily basis...Raúl Peralta: dreamer, dancer, sociopath, serial killer.
Released theatrically in 2008, Pablo Larraín's Tony Manero is one of the most disturbing and effective films I have seen in quite a long time. A ferocious and unflinching character study that follows a very dangerous and deranged man on a foolish journey that is destined to end in tragedy, Tony Manero is a remarkably intense and ugly work that is as compulsively watchable as it is hard to take. In the several days since I have seen it for the first time, there are images and moments that keep rushing back to me, like a particularly twisted dream I can't shake.
Sandwiched between Fuga (2006) and Post Mortem (2010), Tony Manero is the second of, so-far, three features from talented Chilean writer and director Pablo Larraín. Displaying a real sense of visual audacity and thematic fearlessness, Larraín is one of the most interesting young voices in all of modern world cinema. Born in Chile in 1976 (coincidentally the year that the basis for Saturday Night Fever, Nik Cohn's "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night", was published) Larraín has had a life-long interest in film which led him to study directing in his twenties before finally founding his own company, Fabula, before his thirtieth birthday. Each of his three films have been greeted with a mixture of unabashed acclaim and sharp criticism, with Tony Manero drawing the most heated discussions. Like many of his filmmaking idols from the seventies, Larraín isn't afraid to focus his camera on man's darkest desires and instincts and his particular voice is very needed in our now often sanitized cinematic landscape.
Driven by the disquieting and devastating performance of Larraín's go-to actor Alfredo Castro, who is as good here as De Niro was in Scorsese's equally caustic if less deadly The King of Comedy (1983), Tony Manero is the kind of penetrating character study that sadly we are seeing less and less of these days. Larraín's camera rarely lets Castro out of his frame and we follow his every move from very human moments like attempting to dye his greying hair black, to monstrous actions like beating an elderly woman to death just so he can steal her TV to help pay for a new dance floor. Castro plays every moment to perfection with a sharp and expertly realized performance that never panders for sympathy or tips over-the-line into just mere psychotic caricature. This is a beautifully controlled performance that is among the best of the last decade.
Shot in a deliberately harsh and gritty grey tone by cinematographer Sergio Armstrong (who also shot both of Larraín's other features), Tony Manero oozes an ominous and nightmarish ennui that thematically fits in perfectly well with paranoid filled boredom that surely haunted so many lives effected living under such an oppressive dictatorship. The characters here wait for nothing but a dreaded knock on the door. They walk fearing what is around every corner, they have sex without passion and they dream of lives they fear they will never have. Saturday Night Fever might seem an odd choice for a character like Raúl Peralta to fixate on in a film as harsh as Tony Manero, but one has to remember how truly troubled and, at times, despicable John Travolta's character was in Saturday Night Fever, which was in reality one of the darkest 'blockbusters' America ever produced. While he copies Travolta's famous dance moves, Raúl can ultimately only relate to that darkness, a fact that is really brought to light in a terrifying sequence where he savagely murders a theater worker for showing that much brighter Travolta seventies blockbuster, Grease (1978).
Tony Manero has been described as a black comedy and if that is the case then the comedy escaped me completely. There is nothing in the film, whether it be the scenes where Raúl attempts to make his aging body do Travolta's difficult dance moves to the film's brutal and cold murder sequences, that I found remotely funny. The scenes of graphic violence are particularly shocking as they come without warning in the film, almost as if Raúl's intentions are buried so far in his subconscious that not even he is truly aware of them. Even the film's occasional sex scenes are filled with such an intense dread that they are perhaps among the most un-erotic I have ever seen. If Tony Manero was meant as some sort of dark comedy, ala The King of Comedy or Jimmy Hollywood, then that aspect is a failure to me, but I still see this is a major and masterful work from a filmmaker with a lot of guts and vision.
Tony Manero premiered in Chile in the summer of 2008 and it spent the next year playing at various festivals (including Cannes) before Chile submitted it as their entry at the 2009 Academy Awards. The film, Larraín and Castro all won several awards along the way but by the time it hit America for a brief run it was greeted with a mostly muted reception. My friend James Hanson over at Out 1 even went so far as to say that Tony Manero was the only film that he 'really hated' at the 2008 New York Film Festival, which I think shows that this is a polarizing work that probably won't leave too many viewers in any sort of middle-ground mood.
While import DVDs of Tony Manero contained some interviews and behind the scenes material, the Region 1 DVD from Kino has no extras. Still, at least the film is readily available for American audiences and it can currently be seen on HBO's schedule for those who can't track down the DVD.
Much more disturbing and frightening than most modern horror films, Tony Manero won't be a work for everyone but I highly recommend it for anyone who hasn't seen it. While it will be awhile before I revisit it again, I doubt I will be shaking the memory of the film or the look in Alfredo Castro's eyes in the closing shot anytime soon.