Not only did Sight and Sound name the Chilean 'Tony Manero' as their 'Film of the Month' in the May issue of 2009, but at the year's end the Guardian's Xan Brooks named it his fifth favourite film of 2009, beating such films as 'Il Divo', 'The Hurt Locker' and 'Sleep Furiously'. Since then I have been quite eager to catch up with it (quite late, as it came out in Chile way back in 2008!), but had been put off by the extortionate price that 'World Cinema' DVDs go for on the highstreet. Well, earlier today I got round to seeing 'Tony Manero' thanks to the wonderful Film Four.
I haven’t seen any Chilean cinema before, so I have no frame of reference for where this fits in and how typical it is of the quality of Chilean movies (though I would speculate that this is far above the average in terms of production values). I know that ‘La Nana’ was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film award at this year’s Golden Globes (and that it won an acting prize at Sundance), but apart from that I’m in the dark. What I can say is that I was really quite impressed by what is a very accomplished film from director Pablo Larrain.
I have always been interested (and obviously appalled) by stories about the Pinochet regime that ruled Chile from 1973-1990. There have been several American movies which have looked at the subject (‘Missing’ starring Jack Lemmon immediately springs to mind), but it is obviously really interesting to see how a Chilean film look back of that era. ‘Tony Manero’ is set in the late-1970s and Pinochet’s rule of Chile is constantly present in the film. It is present literally in the form of direct references to the dictator, the imposed curfew, the killing of political dissidents and the police-state atmosphere that grips Santiago in the film. But more than that: Pinochet’s Chile is embodied in the story of the main character, Raul, who will stop at nothing to achieve his meagre goal of being the best John Travolta impersonator on a TV talent show (specifically as Tony Manero from ‘Saturday Night Fever’, as the projectionist at a cinema playing ‘Grease’ learns to his cost).
Raul is vile, violent and completely selfish, yet he is (somehow) seductive to women (despite his impotence), even when he is betraying their love and even destroying their lives. He is a totalitarian who lives by a strict doctrine: that of endlessly studying ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and learning Tony Manero’s every move. He will not entertain different ideas, as people attempt (unsuccessfully) to alter the dance choreography from the movie. In pursuit of these warped ideals he often turns to remorseless murder. But aside from these illusions to Pinochet, the film is also critical of American hegemony in South America, as Chileans avoids dealing with the troubles at hand in favour of watching television talent shows and aping American cultural icons. In this way the film can also be seem as a comment on modern Chile and it’s attitude to the West. Indeed this was Pablo Larrain’s intention as he said to Sight and Sound in that May ’09 issue: “Raul Peralta was one step ahead of his country, because his absurd yearning – to be ‘modern’ – is shared by all of Chile today.”
It is perhaps a gross understatement to call ‘Tony Manero’ an interesting film.
'Tony Manero' is rated '18' by the BBFC and is readily available on DVD and may play on Film Four again soon, as they tend to replay things.