30 November 2009

The Decade List: Tony Manero (2008)

Tony Manero – d. Pablo Larraín

[I wrote about this earlier this summer, so here's a slightly edited version of that.]

Like Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle and Man Bites Dog’s “Ben,” Pablo Larraín's Tony Manero offers a new addition to the league of cinema's most fascinatingly maladaptive sociopaths with Raúl Peralta (Alfredo Castro). Set in Chile during Pinochet's oppressive reign over the country during the late 1970s, Larraín takes an unflinching look at his nation's history through Raúl, who'd prefer others to call him Tony Manero, better known as John Travolta's character in Saturday Night Fever. While bearing some resemblance to Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely, the two films part ways quickly as Raúl's celebrity projection turns rapidly grim when we discover that he also brutally murders innocent people without a glimpse of reservation.

More than Taxi Driver, to which it shares a political leaning, Tony Manero recalls some of Michael Haneke's notable works. Like a hybrid of Funny Games' Paul (Arno Frisch) and The Piano Teacher's Erika (Isabelle Huppert), Raúl incorporates Erika's appalling acts of sadism with Paul's absence of remorse. He's not inhuman as much as he's beyond it, a product of the devastating reality of his world and Hollywood's endless dream-pushing.

I resist calling Tony Manero a satire or even a dark comedy as, like The Piano Teacher, its moments of rabid cruelty only spark laughter as a relief from the unshakeable dread the film creates and the repugnance that it instills (though I’m fine if you want to make a correlation between Saturday Night Fever and the downfall of Chilean society). In one of the film's most memorably ghastly scenes, the local theatre's change of attraction from Saturday Night Fever to another Travolta vehicle Grease propels Raúl to crush the elderly projectionist's skull inside the projection booth.

While the underlying idea in Tony Manero rings familiar on a couple of levels, those associations never infiltrate the hypnosis Larraín and Castro, who co-wrote the screenplay, place the audience under. Whether it's mortification or a seedy desire to where the film could possibly be headed, there's something thoroughly transfixing about Tony Manero, which sustains its foreboding uneasiness to its final, astonishing sequence.

With: Alfredo Castro, Paolo Lattus, Héctor Morales, Amparo Noguera, Elsa Poblete
Screenplay: Alfredo Castro, Mateo Iribarren, Pablo Larraín
Cinematography: Sergio Armstrong
Country of Origin: Chile/Brazil
US Distributor: Lorber Films

Premiere: 17 May 2008 (Cannes Film Festival)
US Premiere: 29 September 2008 (New York Film Festival)

Awards: Best Film, Best Actor – Alfredo Castro, FIPRESCI Prize (Torino Film Festival)

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