The grotesque spectacle of a 52-year-old thug with a graying pompadour, stripped to his briefs in front of a mirror gracelessly imitating John Travolta’s dance moves from “Saturday Night Fever,” haunts Pablo Larraín’s film “Tony Manero”like a nightmare apparition.
During his repeated visits to the nearly empty theater showing the film in Santiago, Chile, this obsessed fan, Raúl Peralta (Alfredo Castro), a petty criminal who lives on the outskirts of the city, mouths the dialogue spoken by Mr. Travolta’s character, Tony Manero, as though memorizing catechism.
When he visits the theater one afternoon and discovers that “Saturday Night Fever” has been replaced by“Grease,” he goes berserk. Nothing is allowed to stand in the way of his indulging a tawdry fantasy that gives him his only sense of identity.
“Tony Manero” is set in Santiago in 1978, four years intoAugusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. As Raúl scuttles around the city like a rodent, ducking behind doorways at any sign of trouble, scenes of undercover policemen beating up and arresting suspected opponents of the dictatorship play out on the movie’s fringes without comment or elaboration. The handheld, sometimes out-of-focus camera, which trails him, often from behind, lends the action a queasy verisimilitude.
For Raúl incidents of street violence are opportunities for robbery. From the window of his apartment he notices an old woman with groceries being mugged and runs downstairs to chase the crooks away. Escorting her to her home, he spies her color television set and promptly bludgeons her to death, pausing long enough to feed the cat and eat lunch from the same can. He pawns the television to buy chipped glass bricks for an illuminated dance floor like the one in “Saturday Night Fever.”
More than an indelible portrait of a sociopath with the soul of a zombie, “Tony Manero” is an extremely dark meditation on borrowed cultural identity. Poker faced, emotionally cauterized and sexually impotent (the scenes of Raúl’s trying and failing with women are unremittingly ugly), he symbolizes this Chilean director’s vision of a Latin American country mired in passivity and despair. For the illiterate Raúl, Tony Manero’s night of glory on a New York dance floor is the only dream in sight.
Each week the tacky television contest in which he plans to impersonate Tony, strutting his dance moves in a white suit and black shirt, is devoted to a different star. In the movie’s opening scene he arrives a week early at the studio to find himself standing in line with a bunch of Chuck Norris look-alikes.
Raúl is polishing his act in a run-down cantina where he leads a weekly revue in homage to his hero. His fellow performers not only buy his fantasy, they also look up to him. Wilma (Elsa Poblete), a Pinochet supporter who runs the cantina, and Cony (Amparo Noguera) and Pauli (Paola Lattus), a mother and teenage daughter who perform in the show, are all rivals for his affection. Goyo (Héctor Morales), the fourth member of the troupe, is a young man with polished dance moves who rents his own white suit intending to compete in the television contest; he is also secretly distributing anti-Pinochet literature.
Unmentioned in a movie that touches glancingly on politics is the C.I.A.’s role in the 1973 coup that deposed Salvador Allende and installed Pinochet as president. “Tony Manero” implies that Raúl’s worship of a Hollywood movie is an indirect form of consorting with the oppressor.
Although Mr. Larraín, who wrote the screenplay with Mr. Castro and Mateo Iribarren, was only 2 years old at the time the movie is set, he makes no bones about his disgust with Chile, both then and now. In his director’s statement, he writes, “With this story, I intended to take a harsh look at a society that is incapable of coming face to face with its recent past; a society whose hands are covered in blood but that tries to look stylish and trendy, dancing under flashy lights while ignoring others’ suffering; a country that turns its back on itself, in exchange for the dream of progress.”