There’s something that you quickly pick up on when watching Tony Manero: Alfredo Castro, committed to character as Raul Peralta, a sociopath of the lowest order, never smiles. The closest Raul comes to showing some teeth is near the end of the film when Amparo Noguera’s Cony dances around and caresses him. Like its main character, Tony Manero is unrelentingly grim, wavering cautiously between pitch-black comedy and a sobering look at a society gone to corrupt pieces. In Raul, Castro (who co-wrote the screenplay with director Pablo Larrain) finds an impartial inhumanity, a regressive quality that allows him to show no emotion outside of sudden outbursts of brutish anger.
Pablo Larrain shows similarly detached restraint in his part of telling Raul’s story, placing a handheld camera on the character and letting it roam after him, no matter the wrong he commits. Yet, in showing Raul’s crimes (mostly murder, ranging from cold-blooded to vicious), Larrain denies us the majority of blood and gore, refusing to succumb to the popular (and largely American) sense of visceral gratification.
The story of Tony Manero is sure to raise a number of eyebrows, both for the simplicity of its plot and the economy in which Larrain tells it: in Pinochet-ruled Chile, gaunt and slinky Raul is obsessed with John Travolta’s famed smooth mover Tony Manero. Already in his fifties, Raul prances with presumed superiority, visits the theater and mouths English words without any real understanding as to their meaning, and attempts to secure a spot on the state sponsored contest for the best Manero impersonator.
In his spare time, Raul also murders without discretion, crossing paths with corrupt police officials who etch out time for their own dirty work. Some scenes sure to chill the spine include Raul narrowly avoiding the same two officers who would surely rob and kill him if he ran across their path. The trick here is that the officers are not investigating the murders but rather trolling the streets for the next unwitting victim to which they can pin revolutionary zeal, a veritable death sentence.
Alfredo Castro bares more than a passing resemblance to Al Pacino, but the psychopath he plays here has more in common with De Niro’s Travis Bickle of Martin Scorsese’s seminal Taxi Driver. Where Bickle’s sense of justice may not have been entirely misplaced, Raul has no such sense and simply tears away at a world too busy with dishonesty and sleaze to notice him. He is not so much a force of nature as evidence of its decay, rotten to the core and animalistic in his desires (an alcohol-fueled sex scene provides some truly cringe-worthy moments).
His obsession with Tony Manero is only a means to an end, an outlet for his despicable character. Mr. Castro is fully convincing in the role, his stony stare and sunken eyes doing a great deal of acting without a wasted word. Tony Manero is seemingly economical, stripping away much pretense and providing only the gritty, oft-disturbed point of view from a social pariah with murderous tendencies. It’s focus is what makes the film both difficult to watch and at the same time and hard to turn away from.
Starring: Alfredo Castro, Paola Lattus, Hector Morales, Amparo Noguera, Elsa Poblette
Director: Pablo Larrain
Runtime: 98 Minutes
Distributor: Lorber Films
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