Tony Manero (18)

In this bleakly comic drama, Chile under Pinochet's dictatorship is seen through the eyes of an oddball whose obsession with John Travolta in 'Saturday Night Fever' takes a devastating turn

People tend to remember the disco era as either cool or corny, but rarely as creepy, let alone laden with political resonance. Suffice it to say that the Chilean film Tony Manero shows you disco delirium as you've never seen it before. Tony Manero, you'll remember, was the protagonist of Saturday Night Fever – the archetypal bridge-and-tunnel kid hitting town at weekends to burgeon as a dancefloor god. Played by John Travolta in his snake-hipped prime, Tony was an authentic working-class icon, embodying the possibility of living the dream.

It turns out that Saturday Night Fever was a big deal in Chile in the late 1970s. You might think that a nation under the yoke of Pinochet's dictatorship had better things to think about than the right moves to "Disco Inferno"', but escapism thrives in hard times. Pablo Larrain's film is set in the Chilean capital Santiago in 1978. Tank detachments patrol the streets; a curfew is in effect and secret police mercilessly suppress opposition: under such circumstances, thinks the film's anti-hero, you should be dancing.

Raul (Alfredo Castro) is a middle-aged man whose life revolves around the disco dream. We first meet him reporting to a TV station to take part in a contest to find Chile's own Tony Manero: his determination is barely dented by the fact that he's turned up a week early and they're taking only Chuck Norris impersonators.

Raul runs a small dance troupe in the run-down café where he also lodges, the other hoofers being his girlfriend, faded vamp Cony (Amparo Noguera), her gauche young daughter Pauli (Paola Lattus), and Goyo (Hector Morales), a young man of dangerous leftist inclinations who looks up to Raul, even though he can knock spots off him on the dancefloor.

Raul doesn't just live the dream; he pursues it with pathological obsessiveness. He's fixated on building an illuminated glass dancefloor, just like in his favourite film: he eventually installs it in his bedroom, which becomes the space for an orgasmic private euphoria. This is the least of his madness: Raul is also, unbeknown to those around him, a very dangerous man. He objects so strongly to finding that Saturday Night Fever has been pulled at the local fleapit and replaced with Grease that he takes it out very personally on the projectionist.

The first glimpse of Raul's violence comes when he suddenly assaults an old woman, the provocation seemingly her approving remark about General Pinochet's blue eyes. Does this mean that Raul is an opponent of the regime? Hardly: he later steals a watch from an anti-Pinochet leafleter left for dead by government heavies. And when his friends find themselves quizzed about their politics, Raul flits off to save his own skin. He may appear to be an apolitical man, but in fact he's the sort of self-serving creature that tends to thrive under tyrannies, when opportunists have ample occasion to backstab with impunity.

Raul might also be seen as a parodic mirror image of Pinochet himself: a tinpot tyrant leading his naive acolytes in a meaningless dance, dazzled by his questionable authority. Raul is antipathetic and manifestly disturbed (you just have to hear him parroting Travolta's screen dialogue like a religious litany), and not even much of a dancer. Yet his obsessive focus dazzles his followers. Impotent and narcissistic, he nevertheless seems to derive a weird sexual pull from his borrowed Travolta mantle: Cony, Pauli and their ferociously right-wing landlady inexplicably have the hots for him. After acquitting himself reasonably in a dance show, Raul even manages to lure a mesmerised Pauli to the bedroom, resulting in a "bad sex" scene to rank with the grisliest.

Director and co-writer Larrain uses downbeat grubby realism to explore a theme at once grotesque and outré, with a streak of corrosive black comedy. Holding it all together is an unnerving lead performance by Alfredo Castro, who looks nothing like Travolta, and a lot like Al Pacino marinaded in embalming fluid. I can recall few screen presences as off-puttingly ratty, but Raul's opaque, tight-lipped sullenness is hideously, inscrutably magnetic.

As much as a commentary on the psychology of cultures under dictatorship, Tony Manero is inescapably readable as an insight into the hollow aspirations engendered in our own times by reality-show culture. Larrain's film is a rich and provocative achievement – but by God, it also makes you worry about those contemporaries of Raul who never got into Saturday Night Fever but were big on Taxi Driver.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices