Tony Manero contains one of the more forceful expressions of distaste for Grease ever committed to celluloid. When Raul Peralta (Alfredo Castro) arrives at his local Cineplex intending to see, yet again, Saturday Night Fever, he is informed it has left town, but he can buy a ticket for John Travolta’s more recent film. Raul takes his chances, as he does so many other times in this film, and does not like what he sees. He leaves the theater while the film is still running and enters to projection room, where he proceeds to grab the projectionist and bash his head against the projector until he drops dead. The projectors are still whirring as Raul paces across the room, resolutely unaffected by his deed.
It is in this scene—the most deadpan and outrageous in the film—that Tony Manero’s palette is painted in its grimmest intentions. There have been numerous stories of movie-love and its consequences on our everyday lives, but Tony Manero is the sickest, most bad-omen bearing one yet. There are many other scenes in which Raul, the demented protagonist, played with a sleepwalker-type of creepiness by Alfredo Castro, is obsessing over John Travolta’s character, Tony Manero, in Saturday Night Fever. Each one bears out the notion that Raul is someone who uses the movie as just another outlet for getting the satisfaction he wants. In the course of the film, he will kill at least two other people and involve his friends and girlfriend in his scheme to emulate Tony Manero, only to alienate them whenever he feels like it. The film has been recognized by some as a political allegory of Chile’s Pinochet regime. While the political allegory is there, it is more helpful, especially for non-Chilean’s, to first recognize the film as a very unusual treatise on how media enhances our desires and delusions.
The political context is of course, impossible to separate from the story. The year is 1978, at the height of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Raul has signed up to go on a television contest in which he will dress up as, and dance as, Tony Manero, with the intention of winning the award for the ‘Chilean John Travolta.’ The rest of the film happens in the week between his initial mistaken arrival at the television studio (he is a week early), and the actual contest. In the meantime, he rehearses with his friends and sort-of girlfriend for a separate act in which they will perform a dance number as the troupe from Saturday Night Fever. Raul lives in a dilapidated building that looks like a boarding house, though we can’t be too certain; every building in this Chile is dilapidated and made of crumbling brick and rotting wood. Just as the buildings are falling apart, everybody is impoverished; Raul makes repeated visits to a junkyard to collect glass plates with which he will reconstruct the floor from Saturday Night Fever, and when he realizes that a frail woman he has walked home has a color T.V, he bludgeons her and takes it. The need for commodities is an important thread running through the film, but what is most interesting is how the police-state nature of the country keeps distracting people from this need; several instances of police brutality are featured, both as a result of the anti-Pinochet activities of Raul’s friends and acquaintances.
As a portrait of a dictatorship and of a man completely unaffected by his society (or, one could argue, affected to the point of apathy), Tony Manero undoubtedly paints a realistic picture of a most undesirable time in one nation’s history, but director Pablo Larrain is not careful enough to let the harsh-reality feel of the movie avoid monotony. From the first scene onwards, Raul is so obviously a creep, that we are never able to reflect on his actions or contemplate his character. Castro is an actor who had more control than actors often have over his performance, as he collaborated with Larrain on the script. But he chooses to play Raul as the most repellent individual the movies can offer, full of blank stares, vague communication and pent-up rage. The only hint of a root cause of Raul’s disturbed nature is the fact that he is impotent. Otherwise, we are only left to ponder what is a given in the first few minutes of the film; that this is what a dictatorship does to a society, and this is how movies affect a crazy person. This might work if the film did not play itself as a character study. The way Raul sulks around for the rest of this bleak and naturalistic film makes him come off as the least realistic person in all of Chile; if we want to see an equivalent of his character, all we have to do is look at a grainy photo of a murderer in a tabloid newspaper. No larger metaphor can raise this killer above caricature.
Only in the last scene do we get a tense display of where the movie wants to work; as a bizarre portrait of loneliness and the limits of imitation. The final scene is also the only one set not in a crumbling urban dystopia, but a sunny suburb; had Larrain chosen to set more of the film in the colorful, and therefore eerier, suburbs of a dictatorship, our preconceptions would be dispelled, and we might be more willing to simply label Castro’s character ‘crazy’ and live with it.
At the end of the film, one walks away feeling properly chilled, but not quite satisfied in a cinematic sense. The film is overall exemplary of the state in which foreign cinema has been in for years; built from gray, shaky cinematography that hits us over the head with it’s harsh realism, long takes not for the sake of the story, but for the aesthetic coolness of long takes and no music at all, just because. In a way, it makes one wish that Truffaut and Bazin had never called for films to become naturalistic, or that certain directors such as Antonioni had not ingrained these traits so deeply in to cinema. Foreign cinema is not really helping itself in this regard, even though it continues to produce filmmakers with fascinating subjects on their minds. Tony Manero is a fascinating subject that, in its execution, follows suit too precisely, as Raul does with John Travolta.