Tony Manero (film and character) is just as ugly and nasty as you please. But then again so was life in Pinochet’s Chile. Shot in a hand-held 16mm whose extreme graininess mirrors its squalid milieu, Pablo Larrain’s movie follows a middle-aged thug who murders and steals his way through late ‘70s Santiago while nursing a rabid obsession for Saturday Night Fever whose lead character - John Travolta’s boorish disco champ, Tony Manero - becomes his model of behavior. Thus cultural imperialism and fascist brutality unite in one markedly unremarkable individual.
Actually, Larrain’s is a film largely uninterested in analysis, political or otherwise, confining its ambitions to cool observation of its central figure. Looking more like Tony Montana (albeit lacking every ounce of Al Pacino’s charisma) than Tony Manero, Raúl Peralta (co-writer Alfredo Castro) spends his days sitting in a near-empty cinema learning Travolta’s lines by heart, when he’s not overseeing his small clan of would-be dancers at a local bar or plotting to trick out said bar with glass floors and a disco ball. Of course these things cost money and it’s not long before Peralta begins his campaign of murder/theft, beginning with the brutal beating death of an elderly woman, Larrain treating these moments of extreme violence throughout with a matter-of-fact detachment.
The parallels between Peralta’s pursuits and that of Pinochet’s government are unmistakable – the random and brutal assertion of murderous force in pursuit of personal power – particularly in one scene where the would-be disco king tries to shake down a drug dealer before the army shows up and beats him to the punch, thus neatly aligning personal practice with that of the military government. Similarly the film shrewdly aligns American imperialism with Peralta’s fascist tendencies through the acute influence of the Hollywood cinema. (Just as the CIA helped Pinochet rise to power, so the United States continues to assert its influence in Latin America, albeit in a less overt, more insidious manner.) Finally, the film smartly observes the way in which the most ordinary, unexceptional individuals – Peralta barely talks and is repeatedly glimpsed lounging around in his slightly soiled underwear – are those capable of the most brutality.
But none of these are points that Larrain and his co-screenwriters are interested in pursuing in very great detail. The film is more concerned with wallowing in its own decrepitude, even as it never overplays the impact of its brutal episodes. If Larrain’s goal is to create a calculated unpleasantness, then he’s certainly succeeded – the scenes of debasement quickly stack up: Peralta smashes a movie projectionist’s head against his projector, Peralta forces an underage girl into a graphic sex act, Peralta shits on a rival’s white suit – but apart from their immediate visceral impact, these moments serve little purpose, unsupported as they are by much in the way of accompanying social analysis. Despite some tantalizing hints of a wider cultural understanding, Larrain seems content to observe that Pinochet’s Chile was brutal and then leave it at that.
Only in the film’s concluding set-piece in which Peralta struts his stuff on a local television program in full Tony Manero regalia – the absurdities of cultural appropriation brought vividly to life – does the film begin to suggest a more interesting context in which to read its character’s behavior, but by then it's probably a little too late. Still, what Larrain’s film lacks in insight, it makes up for in unpleasantness, though, of course, that can scarcely stand as much in the way of a recommendation.