Tony Manero has one of the most intriguing mini-synopses I have ever read: a 50-something man in 1970s Pinochet-era Chile, Raul (Alfredo Castro), is obsessed with John Travolta’s turn as the protagonist in Saturday Night Fever and spends his days perfecting his routine for a tribute show and lookalike contest on television. Far from a quirky, kooky boob, Raul is dangerous in his grim determination, and resorts to murder to get closer to his dream of being famous. This short pitch is infused with originality and promise. However, the film itself stumbles into the unwelcoming alleyways of pretension and inscrutability.
Co-written by Castro and Mateo Iribarren, and directed by Pablo Larrain, the film starts promisingly. The camerawork is well-arranged in its lo-fi, handheld naturalism which, when paired with well-scouted locations, creates an atmosphere of gritty squalor and despair. When Raul walks the streets of Santiago, it is in stark contrast to the Stayin’ Alive strut of Travolta; Raul stalks, passing crumbling buildings, dodging police brutality. When he dances, he does so on a rotting wooden stage set up in a sleepy, local bar.
The film conjures up numerous themes that would be worthy material for a film on their own, such as age, patriotism, the lure of the foreign, responsibility, self-interest and the problems of reflected glory both for developing countries idolising America and for lookalikes crafting their obsession into a lifestyle. However, none of these strands are fully explored or mined for depth. Granted, there are outbreaks of touching quality, mostly involving Raul’s trips to the cinema and his dancing. These moments are created by Castro’s sometimes maddeningly introverted portrayal, which raises solitary scenes to outstanding levels, but snuffs out any chemistry with other actors. His quiet, prayer-like repetitions of Saturday Night Fever dialogue and intense concentration on the dancefloor create a complex and memorable character and performance.
However, the film buries these impressive aspects in a long succession of gratuitous, superfluous scenes. The murders occur without motive or consequence, and only serve as tantrum-like overflows of feeling for an otherwise emotionless character. This makes more baffling, and more needless, the exaggerated sex scenes involving Raul and his bevy of women (including the bar owner, a dancer and her young daughter). Much screentime is dedicated to this twisted, dysfunctional family without communicating their relationships or respective histories.
Tony Manero provokes questions not in the sense of debate and discussion, but in the sense of simple comprehension. To cement its status as inscrutable ego-stroking, the creative team have issued a ‘Director’s Intention’ preface for the film in its promotional material. Alarm bells ring – can’t the film speak for itself? It is revealed to be allegorical – for Raul is supposed to be an everyman for Chilean experience under Pinochet, self-interested and idealistically barren, obsessed with glamour and America. Sadly, this missive from the author-god only muddles matters further, as the socio-political undertones only come up in a small plotline involving a young man in the dance group who is a fierce dissident, who spreads anti-Pinochet leaflets and posters. This gives rise to a truly chilling, effective scene where the bar is turned over by the police, and the dancers are interrogated, as Raul hides in the doorway, before sneaking out to have his five minutes of fame on television.
Tony Manero has its moments, and the film’s long takes, jump-cuts and mundane setting are spot on. However, it is almost patronising in its reliance on off-screen, extra-narrative ‘explanations’ in order for the audience to ‘understand’. At its heart, it just doesn’t cover any of its themes to their full potential. And, worst of all, for a film that mingles the personal and the political in a firm historical context (see The Lives Of Others and 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days), it just doesn’t communicate either well at all.
Tony Manero opens in the UK on the 10th of April