Catching up with Pablo Larraín

Alfredo Castro (left) with fellow John Travolta impersonators in Tony Manero (2009).

In anticipation of seeing his highly anticipated new film Jackie—and maybe also checking out his almost-as-highly-anticipated other new film Neruda—I decided to catch up with two of Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín’s previous works.  I remember being fascinated by the premise of his breakthrough feature Tony Manero when I first read about it in Andrew O’Hehir’s column for Salon way back in 2008, so I’m glad I finally had the chance to sit down with it.  It’s an absurdist horror movie about a sociopathic lowlife (Anthony Castro) determined to make himself over in the image of John Travolta’s character from Saturday Night Fever (1977), no matter the cost.  In the final scene of the film Castro stands poised to get his fifteen minutes of fame at a televised John-Travolta-lookalike contest, having left a trail of blood, shit, and human remains in his wake.  The Bee Gees’ “(You Should Be) Dancin’”, repeated obsessively throughout Tony Manero, has never sounded so urgent and desperate.  Set in 1978 at the height of the Pinochet regime, it’s an overtly political film, but I prefer it as a chilling and darkly funny character study, even if it ends with a whimper instead of a bang.

A comedy of more palatable taste, Larraín’s No (2013) secured his position as a rising star within the festival circuit and won him an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film.  Again the subject was Chile in the era of Pinochet: but, being set in 1988 during the plebiscite that signaled the beginning of the end of Pinochet’s rule, it treats its viewers to a feel-good ending.  The bulk of the film concerns the campaign on the part of the leftist resistance movement, led by a hip ad man (Gael Garcia Bernal), to create anti-Pinochet propaganda for Chilean TV (they are given fifteen minutes of airtime a night for 27 consecutive nights leading up to the vote).  As with his use of Saturday Night Fever in Tony Manero, Larraín is at his best in No when he’s examining the political ends to which pop culture can be put.  No is political cinema done right: sharp, sensitively drawn, and anchored by good writing and acting—though it could use a few more thematic wrinkles, considering the complex nature of its subject.  In any case I look forward to seeing Larraín turn his gaze on the U.S. in the wake of the Kennedy assassination later this year. 

Gael Garcia Bernal in No (2013).

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