Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Tony Manero

Tony Manero (2008) is an extraordinary film by Pablo Larrain, set in Santiago during the Pinochet era, about a fifty-two year old man from the slums who's obsessed with the John Travolta character from Saturday Night Fever (1977). In the opening sequence, Raúl Peralta (Alfonso Castro, who co-wrote the screenplay with Larrain and Matteo Iribarren), arrives at a TV studio where he's to be a contestant in a Tony Manero lookalike dance-off, but because of a misunderstanding, he comes a week early on Chuck Norris day. Was impersonating American movie stars a real phenomenon in Chile in the 1970s? It seems too strange to make up.

In a flashback, we see Raúl signing up for the show. The producer asks him what he does for a living. "This." Raúl, who doesn't have a job and lives in a brothel, is rehearsing a musical revue based on numbers from the movie, starring himself, Cony (Ampero Noguera), a prostitute, her grown daughter, Pauli (Paola Lattus), and a boy who works in the brothel, Goyo (Héctor Morales). One night, Goyo and Pauli come to Raúl's room to show him some moves they've been working on, but Raúl is single-minded: "That's not in the film." The film doesn't tell us anything about Raúl's life before Saturday Night Fever, and it's impossible to say what he'll do after the final shot. His whole identity revolves around Tony Manero, and the film ends at the moment when that identity is taken away from him.

Raúl is loved by Cony with a possessiveness matching the Gene Tierney character in Leave Her to Heaven (1945). Early in the film, she tries to convince Raúl that they could do the show on their own, without Pauli and Goyo. One night, Pauli gets caught in a rainstorm, and the brothel's madam, Wilma (Elsa Poblete), takes off her wet clothes in full view of Raúl. When Cony sees this, she becomes jealous and hits Pauli. Raúl, however, is indifferent to Cony's love. As Cony puts it, the only thing that makes him hard is the glass floor he's building for the show. And unbeknownst to her, Wilma is pregnant with Raúl's child. Why are these women drawn to Raúl? The film doesn't give a definitive answer, but obviously it has something to do with Tony Manero.

The film offers a vivid, if peculiar, glimpse into life in Chile under Pinochet. Goyo is a communist who distributes leaflets criticizing the regime, and Cony disapproves of Pauli getting involved with him. In an early scene, Raúl helps an old woman home after she's beaten by a gang on the street. All she can offer him as a token of her thanks is a can of year-old expired cat food. The only thing she owns of any value is a colour TV, which is conspicuous enough that she has to explain to Raúl that she only got it because she's a soldier's widow. Without warning, Raúl suddenly attacks the woman and steals her TV. One subtext of the film is that the regime broke down collective solidarity, turning people against each other.

The film has a gritty, documentary look. Most of the film is shot handheld, and Larrain keeps his camera close to Raúl and his depth of field shallow. The film was shot on extremely light sensitive film stock, resulting in grainy images with desaturated colours. The film doesn't portray subjective states, like dreams, and there's no non-diegetic music. (However, the characters often listen to records and tapes.) The style of the film is a counterpoint to Raúl's Hollywood-inspired fantasies--although it's worth remembering that Saturday Night Fever is itself very gritty.

Why does Raúl identify with Tony Manero? Perhaps the film is dropping a clue when one of the characters observes that, unlike Raúl, Tony Manero will never get old. Hollywood movies routinely offer viewers the opportunity to identify with people stronger, more beautiful, more perfect than themselves. So no one wonder so many people dress up as their favorite characters (think of the Star Wars [1977] cult or the Rocky Horror [1975] cult). Each item of clothing, each prop becomes a fetish object, whether it's Tony Manero's white suit, Luke Skywalker's light saber or Dr. Frank N. Furter's black lingerie, bringing the person who wears/holds it one step closer to perfectamundo--to quote the mother in Myla Goldberg's "Bee Season." Tony Manero is a film about what it means to practice what Dr. Frank N. Furter preaches: Don't dream it. Be it.

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