Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain’s alarming Tony Manero—named not for its protagonist, but rather his ego-ideal, John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever—is another study of a cinema-struck, solitary daydreamer, albeit a particularly stunted member of the genus.
The 32-year-old director’s second feature, shown at the last New York Film Festival, is a brusque black comedy—at times shocking and, in some ways, sui generis. This raw, herky-jerky dance-musical, in which an unsmiling 50-ish madman nurtures fanatical Bee Gees–fueled fantasies of disco glory, has an obvious political backbeat for being set in the dark days of the Pinochet regime. Played with total focus by stage actor Alfredo Castro (who co-wrote the screenplay), Raúl Peralta attends his favorite movie as if it were Sunday mass—sometimes bringing along his talismanic white suit as though it, too, needed to study Travolta’s moves.
Impassive but alert, Raúl not only internalizes Tony’s version of the American dream, but memorizes Tony’s lines for use in the four-actor version of Saturday Night Fever he’s staging, with an inexplicably adoring cult of losers, in a grungy Santiago cantina. Raúl’s obsession is complemented by a total disinterest in any human contact—the movie’s sex scenes are supremely discomfiting. Nothing matters more to this lunatic than his suit’s missing second button. Indifferent to Pinochet’s shabby police state (as well as the ineffectual subversive activities carried out by his younger colleagues), the ferret-like wannabe stops at nothing in his quest to be Chile’s Tony Manero. He violently appropriates an elderly lady’s color TV, spontaneously rips up the cantina to create space for a glass-tile floor, runs amok when he discovers that the theater he frequents has replaced Saturday Night Fever with Grease, and, most grotesquely, befouls a rival impersonator’s white suit.
Shot on 16mm, Tony Manero has a purposefully murky look and a frantic feel. The ultra-Dardenne camera follows Raúl as he darts through Santiago’s empty alleys and vacant lots, only pausing when he raptly watches Saturday Night Fever or attempts to imitate Tony’s stomp-and-point rhythmic flailing. Feasting on this bizarre fascist posturing, Larrain suggests that, with his sordid charisma, Raúl is a miniature Pinochet—reproducing the brutality of the state in his willingness to steal, exploit, betray, and kill in the service of a fantasy.