Dir: Pablo Larrain
Having seen, over the past 20 years, something like 7000 films I’m pretty familiar with genre and cliché. Often I can sit in my seat and write the movie faster than it can play. Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s second feature isn't a great film, but I never quite knew where it was going, and that in itself made it refreshing.
The story concerns Raul Peralta (Alfredo Castro), an unemployed 52 year old who idolises John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever character and along with his girlfriend (Amparo Noguera), her teenage daughter (Paola Lattus) and her daughter’s friend (Hector Morales) he is mounting a dance performance based on the film in a small theatre. As he prepares this performance he is also losing his grip on reality, becoming violent, and ever more obsessed with Saturday Night Fever.
Tony Manero is never a comfortable experience. Raul is damaged from the first moment we see him, and never becomes anything but sicker and more frightening. Alfredo Castro’s terrific performance allows us to go on a journey with this disturbed and disturbing man, however difficult it can be. There is pathos in Castro’s lined face, an evident disappointment that this is all he has, and that auditioning to be known as Chile’s Tony Manero on a TV show contest is likely to be one of the highlights of his life. You never excuse or truly understand him, but the sadness of the performance and the character, and the fact that Castro is so good at portraying his slipping sanity, mediates the discomfort at spending so much time with him, it’s a beautifully layered piece of acting.
Perhaps even better is Amparo Noguera’s very quiet performance as Raul’s girlfriend. Her best moments are not in dialogue, but communicated through her face and her gestures. The concern and suspicion with which she regards Raul dancing with her nubile daughter, the slight disinterest as she attempts to arouse Raul (in brief hardcore detail) for sex. As is the case with Castro you never get a sense from Noguera that you’re watching someone act. The same can’t be said of the younger leads, it may be because their roles are decidedly less interesting and less developed, but we get little sense of them as rounded characters during their screen time.
The explicit content - most of which is the film’s sex and nudity, as it shies from Raul’s violence - feels rather tacked on, but that’s a rare misstep from Larrain, who otherwise directs with a sure hand, suggestive of a director much further on in his career. He crafts some truly memorable sequences and shots. A particularly strong moment has Raul fashioning a discoball for his show using a football, a broken mirror and some superglue, while another especially memorable scene has him, strobe lit, dancing on a home made glass floor and Larrain’s haunting final frames resonate long after the credits have rolled.
I don’t think I’m getting the full effect of Tony Manero though. While it’s always interesting, often beautifully acted and memorably directed, the fact that I know very little about Chile under the regime of General Pinochet means I’m sure that I’m missing several layers of metaphor. That in turn means that this unusual film doesn’t resonate quite as much as it probably ought to. Still it’s a strong piece of work, and I’d love to see more from both leads and from Larrain.