The late 1970s. A kitsch television show is looking for a Tony Manero impersonator. Tony who? – you are probably wondering. Well, he’s the strutting, white-suited disco-dancer from Saturday Night Fever. And this is Raúl’s big chance.
Never mind that Raúl is probably 50 and looks more like Leonard Cohen than John Travolta – he’s still slim, his hair is mostly black, and he’s not too stiff to play him in a creaky local stage show. But, most importantly, Raúl believes.
A nice comic set-up maybe? If this were British, you might expect a feel-good social comedy with a gentle let-down, and lessons learnt. Larraín’s film, though, deals with the much harsher reality of Pinochet’s Chile where, for example, we see two policemen beat a man to death for carrying oppositional literature.
Alfredo Castro’s Raúl is horribly, wonderfully real, and increasingly repulsive. He’s a desperate, near-illiterate, apolitical opportunist, who, to become Tony Manero, is prepared to kill, steal, and, unforgettably, defecate on a rival’s stage suit. The camera almost never leaves his closed and grimy features, but this is more than a gripping and unsettling study of a profoundly anti-social personality.
It’s also an oblique portrayal of the Pinochet regime, continually in mind because of the military and police patrols about the city. The regime, like Raúl, pursues an American dream. They are both murderous and grasping – they’re soulmates. This is a hell of a feature about a gross, banal and dangerous man, and a tragic period in Chilean history.