Sophomore feature 'Tony Manero' by Chilean helmer Pablo Larrain continually intrigues as tone constantly shifts about, in line with unexpected plot twists.
Balancing black humor against allegorical indictment of the Pinochet regime’s oppression on narrow stack heels, striking, very offbeat period pic “Tony Manero” follows a psychotic petty criminal into the depths of his crazed obsession with John Travolta’s character in “Saturday Night Fever.” Sophomore feature by Chilean helmer Pablo Larrain (“Fuga”) continually intrigues as tone constantly shifts about, in line with unexpected plot twists. Grungy, handheld lensing adds arthouse cred, ensuring pic will shake its groove thing for further fest auds.
Story is set in 1978 Santiago, Chile, when Pinochet’s reign of terror was already in full swing, resulting in the disappearance, torture and murder of thousands of citizens for the merest murmur of dissent. Without grandstanding or speechifying, screenplay illustrates how this impacted ordinary lives, and how people were arrested just for breaking curfew or shot for possessing anti-Pinochet posters.
As even family members and neighbors turn against each other, a dog-eat-dog mentality emerges. Pic’s anti-hero, Raul (legit actor Alfredo Castro), is a typical example of this trickle-down effect, a low-life in his 50s who would unblinkingly kill and betray anyone to get ahead.
Paralleling the way the regime was propped up by the CIA, film suggests how Chilean culture is likewise dominated by American imports, exemplified here by the huge popularity of 1977’s “Saturday Night Fever,” still playing in Santiago’s local theaters a year after its release (those were the days), and a tacky TV talent contest. Raul dreams of winning on the latter with his Tony Manero (the name of the character Travolta plays in “Fever”) impression.
At some “Fever” matinees depicted here, Raul is the only one in the audience. He sits enraptured, mouthing back the dialogue and studying Travolta’s moves in order to reproduce them onstage in a shabby neighborhood cantina run by Wilma (Elsa Poblete). Raul’s fellow dancers include clingy Cony (Amparo Noguera), her ripening daughter Pauli (Paola Lattus), and ambitious young pup Goyo (Hector Morales).
Monomanically fixated on the notion that they need a light-up floor just like in “Fever,” Raul brutally batters an old woman — one he’d just helped get home after she was mugged by others — in order to pinch her television and pawn it in exchange for glass bricks. Despite his surliness and inability to perform in the sack, Wilma, Cony, Pauli are all rivals for his affections, perhaps because they’re swept up by his fantasy of living out Tony Manero’s rags-to-riches story.
Pic’s style, with Sergio Armstrong’s 16mm rig hovering over Raul’s shoulder and doggedly following him down scruffy streets, recalls at times the Dardenne brothers’ early work like “Rosetta,” but without any humanist hope of redemption offered at the end. Another touchstone might be Cedric Kahn’s “Roberto Succo,” another story about a delusional murderer that mixes violence with absurdity. Like the protagonist in Kahn’s pic, Raul casually offs people and then resumes his more quotidian business, seemingly unworried about ever being caught. He may be a cold-blooded killer, but he always gets to rehearsals on time.
Peculiar tonal shifts and lack of obvious morality may put off some auds, but pic’s tight editing and distinctive helming style augur well for helmer Larrain’s future.