Review by Conall Cash (catabloguing.wordpress.com)
When I first heard about this movie, a couple of months ago, I quickly skimmed the review and got the impression that it was a kind of uplifting documentary about a resilient guy living in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile who uses his love of disco to overcome oppression and fully express his individuality. Fortunately, a day or two before it was due to screen at MIFF, I decided to read about it more closely to see if it’d be worth getting to, and discovered that it was to be quite a different animal than I’d initially gathered. Both unrelentingly ‘realist’ in that gritty way of much ‘world cinema’ that gets currency on the festival circuit and at the same time offering itself and its central character, Raul, as a kind of social allegory of the Chile of Pinochet’s military dictatorship, Pablo Larrain’s Tony Manero is definitely not a documentary, and definitely not uplifting.
Raul is obsessed with Tony Manero, the character played by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Every week he goes and sees the movie when it plays at a nearby cinema, and repeats every line that comes out of Travolta’s mouth in English that he has clearly learnt solely from watching this film. When anyone appears to get in the way of his determination to become ‘the Chilean Tony Manero,’ like when the projectionist at the cinema one week runs Grease instead of SNF, Raul does something horribly violent to them. The whole time he maintains the same dour expression, evincing neither joy while dancing nor violent lust while beating someone up nor desperate anxiety when the cops nearly spot him out after curfew one night. Eventually it begins to become apparent that, in his determined, illogical, joyless quest to become a perfect imitation of this American screen icon, Raul is representative of a Chile, under the brutal control of Pinochet and the economic policies of the ‘Chicago boys,’ that identifies with the glittery signifiers of American-style capitalism, without having any of the inner experience that can possibly make it meaningful, emotionally resonant or even comprehensible; a totally power-hungry, totally corrupt, totally dictatorial kind of capitalism, wherein personal expression only comes in the form of mindlessly mimicking the voice and the gestures of the master.
In its expectation that we regard its central character as both incredibly, viscerally ‘real,’ complex and unknowable, and at the same time as an allegorical figure, Tony Manero invites comparison with Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent There Will Be Blood. If Larrain is not nearly as formally accomplished a director as Anderson, his film is perhaps the more intellectually and politically ambiguous (and hence, in some sense, more engaging) of the two, because its allegorizing is not quite so neat and straightforward, leaving plenty for the viewer to ponder and debate over once the film’s over. I’m still not really sure how much I like the film, but the fact that I’m still trying to figure that out five hours after it finished is an indication of the mark it leaves upon your brain, if you allow it to.