Tony Manero

Opens July 3

A highlight of the Directors Fortnight at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, Pablo Larrain's “Tony Manero,” Chile's official entry for the Best Foreign- Language Oscar, is a powerful chronicle of the damaging effects of pop culture on one disturbed personality, set amidst the tyranny of Augusto Pinochet's regime.


Though not as strong or coherent as Scorsese's “Taxi Driver” or Bertolucci's “The Conformist,” to which it bears slight thematic resemblance in its centering on a troubled man who becomes a collaborator and killer, “Tony Manero,” named after the character John Travolta played in the quintessential disco movie, “Saturday Night Fever,” is a grittily realistic nightmare, a movie which reflects the anxieties of citizens under oppressive conditions.


When first seen, the protagonist, Raúl (splendidly played by Alfredo Castro), a 52- year-old-ordinary-looking man, is anxiously waiting for an audition for a Travolta-look-alike contest, only to be told that he had arrived a day earlier than was his turn.


Meanwhile, Raul attends and plans to stage a show at a shabby local club, which is located above his small and shabby apartment.  He shares residence with Cony (Amparo Noguera), his needy, sex-starved girlfriend (also not young or particularly attractive), her daughter Pauli (Paola Lattus), and her daughter's boyfriend Goya (Hector Morales).


At first, Raúl's expressionless face suggests stoic calmness and strong resolve to win, which of course camouflage much deeper anxieties, which in due time find an expression in cold-blooded violence, when he kills some of his competitors.


We quickly learn that Raul's one and only goal in life is to impersonate Travolta on a TV celebrity contest.  He's so obsessed with Travolta's disco dancer that he not only imitates the star's famous wardrobe (white suit and black shirt), but also memorizes each and every line he utters in the story by attending the movie as many times as possible.


Note Raul's disappointment, when he arrives at a movie theater that shows Travolta's other popular musical “Grease,” rather than his favorite 1977 picture.  His rage turns to violence, bashing the projectionist's skull for showing the wrong movie.  Or the anger, when he realizes that the weekly contest is for Chuck Norris look-alike contest (Norris was at the height of his popularity in the late 1970s with a series of B-action and adventure flick).  Amazingly, after each act of escalating violence, he returns home, and calmly and fanatically continues to immerse himself in Travolta's picture.


At least two or three scenes describe in detail how Raul makes the money necessary for buying the new glass blocks for his club, which, with proper lighting, would be just as luminous as the legendary dance floor in the “real thing,” the Hollywood movie “Saturday Night Fever.”


Though there are secondary personae, “Tony Manero” lives up to its title and offers a poignant profile of one deranged man, whose entire lifestyle revolves around “Saturday Night Fever.”  He sits around in his grimy apartment, often in tight underwear and chain-smoking, before erupting into a solo dance set to the Bee Gees quintessential music score. For him, the goal justifies the means, any means.  Indeed, in the film's most repulsive and creepiest scene, to sabotage his younger competitor's chances, Raul defecates (literally), and then smears his shit on that man's Tony Manero suit.


Early signs of dangerously deranged behavior are revealed, when he spots through his window an elderly woman who has been mugged on the street.  He quickly dresses up, rushes downstairs and helps the lady get up and return to her home.  After showing kindness to the bewildered woman, watching TV together and feeding her cat, he cold-heartedly bludgeons her to death, then quietly finishes his dinner and walks out with her TV set.


From that point on, the movie devolves into a study of psycho-social depravity, moral bankruptcy, and impotence, both political and sexual.  There are some powerful and depressing scenes, in which his girlfriend Cony tries to make love to him, only to be rejected, and one that depicts a cruel drunken tryst with Pauli, which amounts to no more than auto-stimulation and masturbation.  As in some of Bertolucci's films, impotence here is both literal and figurative.


To the filmmakers' credit, narrative and psychological ambiguity prevails through the end, and no simplistic motivations are offered for Raul's conduct.  You could read the film as commentary on the dangerous impact of American globalization via its all-pervasive and contagious pop culture.  How easy it is for passive, indifferent middle-age men (not just youngsters) to totally embrace American movies and music, hoping they would give meaning to their lives and perhaps new identities, too.  For these people, American culture functions as an avenue of escapism from real-life commitments, both personal and political.


Politics largely remain in the background, through the dictatorship's secret police, which is patrolling the streets and arresting innocent suspects.  The surrogate community to which Raul belongs in his club is also ambiguous and replete with tensions of all kinds, personal, political, and sexual.  Take Mrs. Wilma, the mature owner of the club where Raúl's ensemble rehearses, a woman who' critical, even contemptuous, of Rauel, but also desperate for his attention and sex.  When Mrs. Wilma finds out about the leftist leanings of the troupe's member Goya, she labels him a “communist,” then asserts, “Things are finally working in this country.”


In short order, every meaningful bond, be it personal relationship, family, community, and society at large, manifests signs of moral and social breakdown.  Note Cony's betrayal of her own daughter and her boyfriend Goya.


The film ends abruptly right after the climactic TV dance contest, in which Raul emerges loser.  He then and follows the winner on a bus, sitting just behind him, with a blank stare on his face, before the screen turns black and the credits roll down.


As director, Larraín, who made a strong impression with his feature debut, “Fuga,” has chosen a gritty visual style, mostly executed through a restless, handheld camera, which nevertheless doesn't let us forget who's the narrative center, according Raul several close-ups, from different, often unconventional angles. In other moments, the screen turns blank or seems out of focus (by design, I think) in order to convey a society which is also blank and out of focus.  Moreover, the film's jump cuts also serve technical as well as ideological purposes, reflecting a milieu that lacks order, stability, or continuity.