Kitsch has so thoroughly enveloped Saturday Night Fever in the three decades since its release that the film’s ultimately despairing conclusions seem to have disappeared from view below a glittering disco-light pulse, as nostalgia discourages engagement with its actual narrative. Of course this despair was likely invisible even to much of its original audience. Tony Manero finds its protagonist, Raúl Peralta (Alfredo Castro), haunting a rundown movie theater playing Saturday Night Fever, gazing up at the screen like a pilgrim in ecstasy, parroting words in a language he can’t actually speak, his body gyrating in carefully studied imitation of John Travolta’s disco-dancing fluidity. We are in Santiago, Chile in 1978, five long years into institutionalized terror under Pinochet, but Raúl seems undaunted by circumstance, immersed as he is in his process of transfiguration. We catch him entering the theater long after the film’s started and we can assume he leaves before it’s over. Perhaps he’s never stayed to the end, and imagines a finale in which Tony Manero triumphantly dances his way out of Brooklyn and his dead-end life of banal jobs, a stiflingly Catholic family of Italian immigrants, and inane tribal violence—to become a star. That might explain why Raúl, 52, poor and illiterate, wants, quite literally, to become Tony Manero.
The film follows Raúl as he prepares for a celebrity impersonation contest on a local TV station. He rehearses with a casually incestuous makeshift family of fellow performers with whom he shares a house that doubles as a modest cabaret. While some of his housemates spend their non-dancing hours in clandestine meetings with anti-Pinochet groups, Raúl frets over the number of buttons on Tony Manero’s pants and what sort of high-density glass is needed to construct an illuminated dance floor just like the one at Tony’s beloved 2001 Odyssey nightclub. And like Tony, he seems interested in sex exclusively as an affirmation of power. So single-minded is Raúl that he’ll go to any length to eliminate potential obstacles, whether by defecating on the costume of a rival impersonator or murdering anyone who appears to stand between him and whatever he deems essential to his advancement.
While the combination of an obsession with Hollywood fantasy and gruesome sociopathic behavior is blackly satirical at first glance, director/co-writer Pablo Larraín is clearly after more than cynical laughter. Raúl’s absurd determination to erase himself through the adoption of Travolta’s dazzling outfit and physical prowess speak to a desperation far deeper than that of any distractingly handsome 19-year-old Bay Ridge paint-store clerk. Wisely eschewing the fussily baroque mise en scène that marred his debut feature Fuga (06), Larraín employs a dogged handheld/jump-cut documentary style that surveys acts of savagery with the same dispassionate gaze as his protagonist. His chilly evocation of a still-undigested time of horror in his country’s recent history supplies the crucial meta-text that imbues Raúl’s actions with some meaning, however vague. Of equal importance is his use of actor/co-writer Castro, whose weirdly riveting Raúl, bullying and cold, a total blank when not dancing, is so utterly uningratiating, so stoically intent on transcendence that, despite his repugnant crimes, he ultimately achieves the pathos of a dying animal.
Tony Manero’s release coincides with the posthumous recognition of author Roberto Bolaño, who, in novels like Distant Star especially, wove narratives out of the dark days of Chile’s Seventies by way of shadowy characters who seemed to be lying in wait for Pinochet’s regime to grant them permission to realize their most Satanic urges. Humanitarian crises engender their share of stories extolling the endurance of basic human virtues, but there’s an equally compelling, and perhaps even morally imperative need for stories about how such conditions can also allow the ugliest of basic human instincts to flourish.