Tony Manero

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 November, 2009, 12:00am

Tony Manero
Alfredo Castro, Amparo Noguera, Paloa Lattus
Director: Pablo Larrain

Yes, the title refers to the John Travolta's hip-thrusting hero in Saturday Night Fever; and sure, it shares that film's notion of illustrating a working-class man's odds-defying attempts to realise his self-worth under the disco lights. But that's where the similarities end: Pablo Larrain's second feature may have its comical moments, but they only serve to heighten the horror that drives the narrative, in which a sociopath stops at nothing to win a Tony Manero impersonation competition on Chilean television in 1978.

The date gives the game away: more than just delivering drama, death and a lot of (bad) dancing, Larrain's piece also offers a sharp reminder of the effects of Augusto Pinochet's US-backed rule on Chilean society. Living in the early years of the dictatorship, Tony Manero's protagonist embodies all the values espoused by the country's thuggish, right-wing rulers: Raul Peralta (a brilliant turn by Alfredo Castro) is a shady, violent creature who is ruthless in his pursuit of the prize in his life: he steals to build a glass-tiled dancefloor in his room, kills to get the money he needs, and defecates on his rival's white suit to decimate solid competition in his race to become Chile's top disco dancer.

Larrain has done a remarkable job in conveying the drab, menacing atmosphere of the day: rather than filling his film with convenient visual period-markers, he allows his characters' angst and agony to reflect the desperate poverty and terror that defined the existence of the Chilean underclass back then. The film's grey and dark-green hues add to the apprehension, and the grotesquerie is rendered sharply by the pathological relationships around Raul.

The brutality of the military junta is never far away, as Raul's friends are seen being questioned by the secret police about their political leanings. As the menacing interrogation continues, Raul is seen slithering away - an unnerving scene that rivals the film's final shot of the man staring murderously at his competitor. In Tony Manero, closure is not an option - it's the lack thereof that makes it so grittily realistic and utterly captivating.

Extras: Interview with Castro, trailer.