September 7, 2009

Tony Manero Dances at the Walker This Weekend

Before the 50th Regis Dialogue and Retrospective with Joel and Ethan Coen kicks off this month, the Walker Art Center is screening a couple of recently buzzed-about films. Next Wednesday a one-time free screening of No Impact Man will be held, and this weekend the Chilean 2009 Oscar submission, Tony Manero, will be shown in the Walker Cinema. Tickets are, as always, $8 for the public and $6 for Walker members.

From the description on the Walker's website:

"In an intense film set against the backdrop of General Pinochet’s late 1970s Chile, Alfredo Castro plays Raúl Peralta, an aging lowlife obsessed with Tony Manero, John Travolta’s character from Saturday Night Fever. The film is rife with plot twists, and Peralta’s bleak and darkly comic reality descends into an unrestrained world that mimics the totalitarian regime all around him; he will stop at nothing to become his idol."

I haven't seen many films about Chilean life during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet; the only other one I can think of is the above average Machuca from a few years ago. So as I was reading up a bit on the Pinochet timeline I discovered irony in the fact that Tony Manero will be premiering here on September 11, which is the same date in 1973 that Pinochet overthrew Allende in a bloody coup d'état.

That coincidence is not nearly as bizarre as the film itself, and I can say without hesitation that Tony Manero is one of the most discomfiting movies I've seen this year.
Alfredo Castro delivers a perfectly restrained performance as Peralta - it's an older and decidedly creepier version of Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Bickle's isolation and violent disgust is self-initiated and a little less focused, while Peralta's angst is environmentally imposed and specifically targeted toward those who impede his assumption of the identity of Travolta's Tony Manero.

There are obviously a lot of layers of cultural significance here, but for my money Tony Manero is maybe just a little too twisted to deliver its message most effectively, that message having been described by director Pablo Lorrain in a recent interview as follows:

“I wanted to tell the little story of a man obsessed with what is foreign to him, who lives in a country going through the cultural process which defined our actual way of acting and relating to the world. A prowl on the process of a common man and what surrounds him; or as well, a fragment of something bigger that cannot be seen, because finally, the dance of Raul Peralta’s is, to me, the dance of all Latin-Americans. The dangerous air of underdevelopment and it’s delirious wild abandon that saw itself very much exposed and threatened during the seventies, in the middle of the military dictatorships that struck our region.”

I don't think it's out of the realm of possibilities that someone like Peralta may have existed during the Pinochet era, but ultimately I feel like the frequently cringe-worthy scenes in Tony Manero say more about psychosis, or at least about this particular character's quirks, than they do about life under Pinochet (I would make the same argument about Taxi Driver not painting a very complete portrait of 1976 New York, either).

You can decide yourself this weekend:

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