By Larry Rohter
OVER the years “Saturday Night Fever” has meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But the Chilean director Pablo Larraín is probably the first to have been inspired to use that 1970s disco drama as a device to dissect the abusive dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, as he does in his new film, “Tony Manero.”
Tony Manero, of course, is the name of the character John Travolta played in “Saturday Night Fever.” “Tony Manero” the movie, which opened in New York on Friday, is about a week in the life of Raúl Peralta, a dancer in a run-down cabaret who embarks on a relentless quest to win a Travolta look-alike contest broadcast by a Chilean television show at the height of the “Saturday Night Fever” craze.
“Saturday Night Fever” was released in Chile in 1978, which happened to coincide with one of the bleakest, most repressive periods of Pinochet’s 17-year rule. He had seized power on Sept. 11, 1973, in a bloody, United States-backed coup that overthrew the Socialist president, Salvador Allende, and imposed policies that crushed political dissent while encouraging an every-man-for-himself scramble for economic gain.
That history encouraged Alfredo Castro, the actor who plays Peralta, to endow his character with an aura of menace and barely contained aggression, meant to register as a metaphor for the amorality and viciousness of the Pinochet regime.
Raúl Peralta is “a social outsider, perfectly capable of appropriating the opportunity to kill with impunity,” Mr. Castro said. “He lacks moral judgment, and his logic is demented, archaic, that of: ‘If the state is killing hundreds, why can’t I?’ ”
Released in Chile in 2008, “Tony Manero” was first shown in the United States at the New York Film Festival last fall. The festival’s program director, Richard Peña, said the film appealed to him because of its ability to convey “the feeling, the texture and tactile sense of life during that time” and its complicated and nuanced view of American pop culture.
“ ‘Saturday Night Fever’ becomes a strange double-edged sword,” Mr. Peña said. “On the one hand it is free and easy and democratic and represents freedom and masculine flamboyance. But it also comes from America, which is seen as being at the root of the problem, behind the overthrow of Allende and the installation of Pinochet.”
In addition Mr. Castro’s character looks a lot like Al Pacino, as critics were quick to note after “Tony Manero” was shown at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. Mr. Castro and Mr. Larraín said they were amused by the comments that similarity has provoked, which they believe underline and amplify their theme of cultural domination. “The interesting thing is that here you have a Chilean actor who tries to look like John Travolta and ends up being said to look like Al Pacino,” Mr. Larraín said. “He’s never Alfredo Castro. He’s always somebody else, and what he does in the film is exactly that too.”
Mr. Castro added: “It’s like I’ve been erased, and there is something symbolic about that.”
The genesis of “Tony Manero” can be traced to a book of photographs Mr. Larraín, 32, stumbled across in a museum gift shop in Spain a couple of years ago. One image especially fascinated him: that of a gaunt, tattooed man sitting in a chair and staring blankly out a window, a cigarette in one hand and a revolver in the other.
Back home in Santiago, Mr. Larraín showed the picture to Mr. Castro, who quickly agreed to join Mr. Larraín in elaborating a story for the man. “We saw a dancer who was also a killer and began to create from that premise,” Mr. Larraín recalled. “Later in the process we came to see that we had the possibility to insert this human being and his desire into the political context of a particular period in Chile, and that made us rethink the story.”
Though “Tony Manero” also contains elements of a psychological study, a thriller and a musical, its political subtext has drawn the most attention. After the showing in Cannes, a critic for the Le Monde called Raúl Peralta “a small-scale replica of Pinochet” and argued that “if the term weren’t so pejorative, I’d say that ‘Tony Manero’ was a great anti-imperialist film.”
On the surface Mr. Larraín would seem an unlikely candidate for that kind of undertaking. His father, Hernán Larraín, is a former president of the Chilean Senate who is also president of the country’s main right-wing party, which enthusiastically supported the Pinochet dictatorship.
On his mother’s side Pablo Larraín is part of the Matte family, perhaps Chile’s wealthiest. The Mattes, whose fortune comes largely from their pulp and paper businesses, have been accused by human rights, indigenous and environmental groups of improperly benefiting, during and after the Pinochet era, from the expulsion of Mapuche Indians from traditional forest lands.
Asked how his father felt about his movie, Mr. Larraín said he wasn’t sure his father had seen it.
“You’d have to ask him, but I think he’d like it a lot, because, like any father, he wants his children to do well,” he said. “Although I don’t share his political ideas, we have a terrific relationship.” Hernán Larraín did not respond to requests for comment.
Reaction to “Tony Manero” in Chile has been mixed and often intense. Some on the right are furious at what they regard as a betrayal by someone they thought was one of their own, but even some anti-Pinochet commentators have complained that the film projects an overly negative image of the country.“I wanted to provoke an explosive reaction,” said Mr. Larraín, who began his career as a director of television commercials. “This is not a spot, a commercial for Chile. I make the films I want to make, and this one is about a time that, to the extent that people recall it at all, is like a bad dream, a blurred memory that can’t be remembered as fact but only as emotion.”