Tony Manero (2008; Pablo Larrain) is not fun. It is probably the bleakest and most “feel-bad” film I have seen in a long time, with a main character that’s such a rotten, soulless bastard that the movie is often very uncomfortable to watch: he’s such a beast, that you’ll feel dirty afterwards.
Set in 1978, had director Larrain shot this in 16mm and then blown it up to 35mm, you would have that exact same sleazy-grimy grainy-film texture you get from movies from that period, like The Last House on the Left and I Spit On Your Grave.
Most of all, though, Tony Manero is like a Chilean version of Lodge Kerrigan’s creepy Clean, Shaven—and I mean that in the best way: Both films are unrelenting and grim character studies of disturbed and violent loners; nor do they give obvious reasons as to why the protagonists are such bleak examples of humankind. (While very different, Tony Manero also reminded me very much of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson: each movie being absolutely focused on its complete and unredeemable psychopath.)
While Raul, Tony Manero’s Tony Manero wannabe, is a mystery in his details, the source of his aberrant behavior is ever-present: the film says, this is what happens in the aftermath of a right-wing, anti-intellectual, anti-everything military junta taking over in a coup d’état.
In 1978 Chile, crazy shit is going down and the pressure of living under Pinochet is making people crack.
Dour and humorless Raul (played by co-screenwriter Alfredo Castro) is obsessed with the film Saturday Night Fever to the point of monomania; and on the side, he beats little old ladies to death and steals their TVs.
Even if you don’t know about Chile’s tragic recent history, the film makes it clear that this is a police state, and that the secret police—or army, which patrols the streets regularly and has installed a curfew, but doesn’t help with flood relief—can pick you up and get you “disappeared” in an instant. It’s existence in perpetual paranoia. Life in Chile was sad and awful.
Perhaps this quote by documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzman, living in exile from Chile since the coup, will explain further (from Film Quarterly magazine):
“This whole section of history disappeared from view: there was not even one book published in Chile. Pinochet governed with terror: no professor could even make a reference to the coup in a classroom. It’s an extraordinarily strange thing because Chile was a very cultured and sophisticated country. All culture disappeared. Music disappeared. Painting and culture disappeared. There was like a freezing, a paralysis. For many years there was a process of trying to slow down history, with history textbooks devoting half a page if you’re lucky to the coup, and nothing about Pinochet’s methods. The subsequent democratic governments continued to be afraid. It was only when Pinochet was detained in England that the fear began to subside or fragment, but very slowly.”
A Hobbesian world has been created, and the spiritually ugly will thrive. As such, I have to regard Tony Manero as a cultural indictment against the older generation that stuck its head in the sand (like being obsessed with SNF) and went slowly, violently mad, chasing their own fruitless ambitions.
“What a jerk,” another character says about Raul, and that is it in a nutshell: he’s a boring, brutal moron.
And somehow, he’s become obsessed with John Travolta’s disco dancer character from Saturday Night Fever (even stealing a print of the film).
Tony Manero is also a great reminder of the cultural importance of Saturday Night Fever, other than bringing disco into the mainstream: People’s selective memories tend to only hold onto the fun scenes in SNF, especially the beautifully choreographed and excellently shot dance routines, and forget the rest of the flick’s bleak tone: Tony and his pals are going nowhere.
At the time, the movie meant a lot to many people—giving vent to frustrations of the inevitable slow death that’ll happen if you don’t leave the home neighborhood.
And Raul is even asked to go away with someone, but won’t—he’s so obsessed with the movie that he can’t hear its message.
Paced and shot like an American “Indie”—lots of handheld camerawork, with long takes; sparse atonal music; slow and portentous; yet another character study—
but unlike those mumbling or manic pixie explorations of suburban ennui, with Tony Manero, there’s more.
Weighted with plenty of paranoia, the film is very tense, and highly political, if in a largely unspoken way.
Currently available on Nflix Streaming, Tony Manero
is a must-see for fans of the “feel-bad” movie, and recommended for those with a strong temperament for violence and borderline reverse-agitprop. Yeah, I “liked” it.
I’m also looking forward to seeing director Pablo Larrain’s other films: Post-Mortem (2010), following workers in the morgue when the coup starts and the bodies start pouring in; and No (2012), a true story about the advertising campaign that essentially ousted Pinochet.