Santiago de Chile, 1978. In the midst of Pinochet’s dictatorship, Raúl Peralta, a man in his 50s, is obsessed with impersonating John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever. And his dream of being recognized is about to become a reality when the national television announces a contest.
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I was not impressed - it had a sort of amateurish quality to it. And where was Raul's motivation? He bludgeoned some old tart to death just for her telly? And he did someone else in for some glass floor tiles? Also a cop-out ending. But I liked the fact that he couldn't dance for nuts. Pinochet allegory? Augusto liked disco dancing? Wow, that's deep.
With films, unlike with people, the word "demented" can be a compliment. Tony Manero reminded me of nothing so much as prime Herzog (Stroszek, say) in its dark, bizarre monomania. It has a concept and a character, both of which it pursues singlemindedly to hypnotic effect. But already you can see Larrain's theme forming: political turmoil, pointed ugliness, and a kitschy, US-by-way-of-a-dicatator media culture.
The streets of late '70s Santiago down which Raul struts, looking more like Pacino than Travolta, exude a menace superficially similar but different in kind to the New York streets of the same period as depicted in SNF. The distinct, police-state nature of the city's sense of threat cuts Raul's swagger with furtiveness and fear; his impotence and violence recapitulate national catastrophe as personal breakdown.
A grizzly, grizzly tale of a sociopath and his obsession; the one thing that keeps him going. As is customary in Larraín's filmography, there is no redemption here, not an ounce of sympathy for the viewer. Just one disturbing sequence after another. Brilliantly executed. Though the camerawork, framing and composition is not as beautiful as what he and the DP achieved in "Post Mortem".
Disturbing in ways that you won't expect, repulsively methodical and fascinatingly repetitive in its unfolding, Tony Manero features an Al Pacino's lookalike wandering in the streets of Santiago, bouncing from a movie theater to a mushy cantina, while dreaming to become the uber-simulacrum.
"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 ... he symbolizes [Larraín’s] vision of a Latin American country mired in passivity and despair." - Stephen Holmes, NYTimes. 3.5 stars
My original reaction was disgust. But after time to ingest, I could see Raul as a metaphor for the crude destructive Pinochet regime, not unlike many dictatorships obsessed with the superficiality of American Pop Culture.