Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s “Tony Manero” must be one of the worst-looking movies ever submitted for Oscar consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film category. The picture is washed-out and blurry, contains some of the most dismal sex scenes outside of the Andy Warhol canon, and features a protagonist who’s about as engaging as an abandoned luncheonette. Could this be … art?
A lot of critics on the international festival circuit, where “Tony Manero” made the rounds last year, appear to have thought so. They discerned a political allegory, which is easy enough to do, I suppose, but raises the question: So what?
The story is set in Santiago in 1978, five years into the near-20-year military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet — a brutal national ordeal in which thousands of people were murdered and tens of thousands were jailed and tortured. Raúl Peralta (Alfredo Castro, a stage actor who also co-wrote the movie’s script) is unconcerned with this governmental depravity: the curfews, the crackdowns, the intelligence thugs lurking everywhere. Raúl is all about himself — or, more precisely, all about Tony Manero, the disco stud played by John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever.” He watches the film obsessively at a neighborhood theatre (usually empty one year after the picture’s release), mouthing the actors’ words, nodding along to the Bee Gees and cradling a garment bag containing a white Travolta-style suit he’s had made. He is aggressively pathetic.
Raúl lives with his wrung-out girlfriend Cony (Amparo Noguera), her nubile daughter Pauli (Paola Lattus) and a young man called Goyo (Héctor Morales) in cheap rooms above a little café. At night they put on a musical act for the patrons — a tribute to “Saturday Night Fever,” with Raúl replicating the famous Travolta dance moves. Since he is a graying 52 years old, with a face locked into an expression of frozen hostility, the effect is grotesque. Cony tries to have sex with him, but Raúl is more of a masturbating kind of guy. Even when he puts the moves on young Pauli, they end up fulfilling themselves separately (an especially bleak scene).
In an effort to step up the group’s dance act, Raúl wants to install an illuminated glass dance floor in the café’s little stage. He has no money for this, but that’s only briefly a problem. He beats an old woman to death and steals her TV set, hoping to turn it into cash. That doesn’t work out too well, and he winds up having to beat someone else to death. Then one day when he returns to the movie theater for his regular “Fever” fix, he discovers the picture has been replaced by another film — “Grease”! (A rare shard of humor.) You can imagine what this impels him to do. We then join him as a contestant on a shabby TV show devoted to celebrity-impersonation contests — one week Chuck Norris, another Julio Iglesias, that sort of thing. This week the subject is Tony Manero, and Raúl turns up with a contingent of other Tonys to take his shot. This doesn’t work out exactly as he’d hoped, either.
It could be said that in a totalitarian society, where resistance can be fatal, only the heroic will take a stand — everyone else will look out for number one. And since mass liquidation is a government program in a country like Pinochet’s Chile, freelance homicides are likely to go unremarked. These things could be said, and if the movie’s interiors weren’t so drab, its colors so leached, its performances so dispirited and its commitment to traditional camera focus so intermittent, they might be somewhat interesting to contemplate. Maybe. But interest is something the movie obliterates. “Tony Manero” may be art, but it’s murder to sit through.
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