*because i’ve been away. does contain spoilers no one cares about, if you make it to the end (threat and promise)*
Pablo Larrain’s 2008 Tony Manero is a film which coolly reminds you that art isn’t dead and war isn’t over. Manero is Larrain’s second film after his debut in 2006 with Fuga which portrays a pianists decent into madness. We meet Manero in the depths of the madness, where cruelty is so quotidian it is passe, adding insult to injury the insanity is veiled with sequins and polyester leaving you the same as a thief on the streets would- abandoned, cut up, and chuckling with disbelief.
The film premiered at this years Cannes amidst a slew of other films from “the subcontinent” as The Guardian’s Xan Brooks describes “Are things really as bad as that? Latin America is supposed to be the success story at this year’s Cannes”. Latin American film has been perpetually fertile ground for unknowing critics to cry ‘film ho!’ and plant a flag down declaring the next big thing. However, this time there may be something to talk about.
Manero, is played by co-writer Alfredo Castro because, as many auteur critics know, there probably is no one who could have played him better, it seems as though his vision was so specific, so obtuse, the casting could only lead circuitously back to the writing. The approach to creating a dialogue regarding readership of Latin American cinema dances a precarious line between appropriation and praise, which makes Tony Manero reflecting it right back, such a hot subject.
The film usurps poetic license to recreate the Pinochet era, known as the Chilean reign of terror, feeling more like a mental flashback than a picture perfect time machine. The film openly covers the ramifications of what happened after the 1970 socialist candidate Salvador Allende was voted president with a small margin of victory. However, in 1974 after years of intervention from the United States CIA, the Chilean parliament was overthrown, Allende committed suicide and the military commander Augusto Pinochet seized power. And following suit of important historical events, in 1977 Saturday Night Fever was released.
During the Pinochet reign there existed a “Caravan of Death” which existed solely to incarsirate, if not eliminate, any opposition or threat thereof, against the government. Larrain may have been referring to the Caravan in the scene where an unidentified character is approached by the police in a van (which we had previously seen Manero hiding from) and shot after they discovered political fliers in his bag. Our hero Tony aptly hides, and after the execution is executed, he takes the man’s watch and admires it on his own wrist, an eerie reflection of the timelessness this film encapsulates.
The film gauzily points to sticky international relations on the final game show, as the announcer introduces an Argentinian model they had hired as some sort of tacky olive branch. The commodification of the female body in terms of creating a literal bardering chip is nothing new, but Larrain applies the concept with a vintage chic flavor reminiscent of newness.
Larrain, well aware of his expectations as a Latino director, toys with tokens and symbols of machismo and the spicy flavor of otherness, and tosses them out the window. Mangey dogs, talk shows and skeletol cities, oh my. The motley pack of dogs from Inarritu’s Amorres Perros are bribed with a specific bone of foresight as they soon become collatoral for another one of Manero’s victims. Almodovar’s love/hate relationship with the Spanish talk show is overlooked with the black humor as Manero loses the competition. Santiago as a city, barren, underdevloped could almost be Rio de Janeiro or Mexico City, but alas Larrain marks it as his own, specifically Chilean as the roaming Manero becomes a vicious, dynamic extension of the cities isolation, violence and neglect.
And then there is Manero himself, the most colorful examination of machismo ever before seen in Latin American film, with the only exception being Roberto Cobo as La Manuela in Arturo Ripstein’s 1978 El Lugar sin Limites (A Place Without Limits) Manero is oversexed and yet entirely impotent, machismo manifest. Manero’s obsession with Travolta surpasses homoeroticism, surmised perfectly when his girlfriend says “you can only get it up for that floor of yours” referring to the GLASS FLOOR he is crafting to perform on.
Manero kills for a TV possibly to watch Travolta on, he kills for the floor he needs to dance like Travolta on, he kills for the copy of the film and possibly out of sheer anger it is no longer playing, and he lets die to perform.
The irony is palpable. The humor and awkwardness with which we now know the halloween-costume version of the seventies is juxtapposed with the serious, death dealing attitude which Tony Manero lives them in. Like the narrative, the film itself is veiled. Stylistically dark Tony Manero is hard to see, literally. Not to suggest that the darkness implies a mysterious metanarrative , rather it challenges the eyes and builds a screen between the viewer and the subject. Manero can’t be had, he must be discovered, learnt, dreamt and lived as the specter of a character he is.
“It has all come true…If you take the icons of US culture and you go to Chile you will see them everywhere. We have a very unsettled and fragile structure. Everything is imported from America.” Says Larrain. It seems in the time of what could be a Latin American film identity crisis, Larrain is buying back what he has been sold with the ultimate “shit on your white suite” bargaining chip- Tony Manero.