We follow, through the camera which is our eyes, a man walking rapidly into a TV studio, just to find out he is one week earlier for the Tony Manero look-alike competition.
This is how Pablo Larraín's film Tony Manero starts, setting out the pace and the mood from the very beginning, and the amorality of the main character, Raúl Peralta (played by Alfredo Castro), in the Pinochet's Santiago of Chile of 1978, as we seen him constantly trying to butt his way in, although he is openly out of order.
This exceptionally good film, a thriller, kept me on the edge of my seat throughout its duration, clearly indicating that there are other ways for art-house works to go apart from the dichotomy of "slow" and Hollywood movies, currently being being discussed in the cinema world, slow films which had followed Tarkovsky's visual tradition without the Russian's philosophical discourse (the 19th Century's Russian novel transferred to the cinematic world is how his films have been described by some critics and theorists).
There is none of that slowness, of that languid visual imagery so characteristic of so many contemporary art-house films in Tony Manero. That agile hand held camera we see at the beginning and extreme close-ups gives it a paranoid mood, becoming a very unsettling film indeed where nothing is what seems to be: Peralta, a middle aged head of a troupe of dancers based in a seedy café, is obsessed with Saturday Night Fever to the point of smashing the head of the projectionist of the local flea-pit when the film was changed with Grease - and stealing the film reels, the ticket seller also having been murdered (we presume, as all the violence happens off camera), is bent not only to stage a show based on Travolta's character, but to actually become Tony Manero; yet Goyo, the boyfriend of his girlfriend's daughter, is a much better dancer than he is (and with the age and the looks to make a much better parody of Tony Manero).
Peralta's presumed sexual charisma and powers are proven to be as vacuous as his dancing skills in one of the most embarrassingly bad sex scene in the history of cinema when he tries (and this is the correct word) to seduce a willing Pauli, Cony's (his girlfriend) daughter, who has the hots for him (as his ageing right wing landlady also does), just to find out that there is nothing behind that façade of sexual prowess: she ends sexually satisfying herself on her own while a pathetic Peralta collapses on the bed at her side after he too masturbates, the camera focused on his face while Pauli's is slightly out of focus. This scene generates a chain of events which we presume ends with the death of the whole troupe with a bullet on the back of their head delivered by Pinochet's secret police henchmen as Cony denounces his own daughter Pauli for her left wing activities: leafleting against the dictatorship.
Did she do so as revenge for her pathetic peccadillo with Peralta? As a Chilean and a survivor of the Pinochet years, I saw on many occasions people denounced to the secret police not because they were communists involved in subversive activities, but merely to settle petty scores such as Pauli's crush on his mother's boyfriend, without realizing the consequences of such denouncements.
Yet Peralta, who has already committed a series of murders to get his Tony Manero impersonation on stage, and building on the café the illuminated glass dance floor shown in the movie, presents no interest for the police: we are talking about a society where the authorities could kill anybody they disliked with total impunity on broad light, as we see in the film. The crimes committed by the state exonerates those committed by the individual, as long as they do not pose a threat to the state: this is the amorality of not only a dictatorship, but of politics even in democratic societies. The final scene of the film is really creepy, when Peralta (a man able to murder an old woman, the widow of an Air Force officer, after rescuing her from a bunch of thugs because she said that Pinochet had blue eyes - Peralta's eyes being anything but blue, yet he fed her cat before fleeing the scene of the crime with her new colour TV set which he subsequently sells to pay for his dance floor) follows the winner of the Tony Manero competition on the bus... the camera cutting short, blackness replacing his murderous eyes...
Much has been said about the scene where Peralta actually shits on the new white suit that Goyo has bought when he learns that he is also going to enter the Tony Manero competition, an excruciating scene that I barely could bring myself to watch and which could be read as a metaphor for the abasement of innocence and purity (white being the colour of purity in the Roman Catholic lexicon) in the pursuit of a vain chimera, as we seen in his empty eyes in a expressionless face; a representation as well of the military government (Pinochet was himself a very vain man, with his blue eyes he believed himself to be above this land of dark Indians).
Tony Manero, Sight & Sound film of the month for May 2009, may be situated in an specific place in time and location, however, the issues raised go far beyond it. When Peralta watches Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever" in the emptiness of an afternoon screening, he repeats what is being said on the screen word by word, like if it were a sacred text, yet he does not understand or speak English, a yearning for a fantasy reality beyond our means and comprehension so characteristic of a consumerist society, celebrity obsessed, such as our contemporary world. The camera is focused on his face in a close up, his eyes devoid of any light, his features devoid of any expression, as if he were in a trance, dreaming in a world he pathetically tries to reproduce in his seedy life.
Alfredo Castro's portrayal of Raúl Peralta is exceptional: as he was no longer acting, as he actually became Peralta.
A truly exceptional film, up there on a level with Haneke's The White Ribbon and Audiard's A Prophet. Tony Manero is out now on DVD. It is a shame that it was never shown in Hull.