This tough, impassive, marvellous second feature from young Chilean Pablo Larraín exhibits a candour and keen eye for its ‘lower depths’ milieu worthy of Pasolini at his most austere and non-judgmental. Set in, and partly intended as an allegory of, the dictatorial reign of Pinochet in 1978, it’s a sympathetic portrait of an unsympathetic, even unredeemable character, Raúl (Alfredo Castro). This 52 year old is a calm but psychopathically violent thief who’s obsessed with the disco hero Tony Manero played by John Travolta in ‘Saturday Night Fever’. Shot entirely hand-held, sometimes jump-cut and out of focus, and constructed as an informational jigsaw, Larraín’s movie follows his evasive quarry through the wasteground, scrapyards, apartment blocks and run-down cinemas and cafés of Santiago as he prepares for his appearance on a daytime TV audition show aiming to find Chile’s own Tony Manero.
This is a film where, if anything, the execution exceeds the idea. In as far as the script proposes interesting parallels between the distorting excesses and temporary impunity of the murderous Pinochet regime and the actions and amoral behaviour of its main protagonist, such ambitions also threaten to rigidify and overwhelm the impressive character study and abandon the movie’s intriguing dramatic centre. Thankfully, not least through impressive, company-wide low-key performances – including a standout central one – and dextrous and discreet direction, the film’s original, tragic and bleakly humorous vision shines out, definitely marking out Larraín as a talent to watch.