Political repression and fetishistic obsession combine to chilling effect in this Chilean drama, set in Santiago at the height of Pinochet’s brutal regime.
The year is 1978 and the city’s populace is living in fear of the secret police, who routinely hunt down anti-government dissidents, intellectuals and other undesirables. One man, though, has something else on his mind: the titular Tony Manero, John Travolta’s character from Saturday Night Fever.
At first glance, the pallid, ageing Raul (Alfredo Castro) couldn’t be more removed from Travolta’s struggling New York hoofer. Yet that doesn’t stop him watching the film over and over again so he can replicate Manero’s moves every week with the small group of dancers he leads, or using underhand methods to construct a replica of the iconic neon dancefloor on which his hero struts his stuff.
His mania cranks up a notch when the state broadcaster announces a lookalike contest for white-suited wannabes. Just how far will he go to realise his crazy dream of recreating himself in Tony’s image?
As twisted an indie as was ever projected on a UK screen, Pablo Larrain’s movie has high-minded ideas underpinning its weird scenario. Just as Chile itself was corrupted by a CIAbacked coup, so its people are shown to be under the spell of an imported alien culture – Raul’s mission to mirror Travolta’s cool becoming symptomatic of a society that, having been robbed of its identity, now seeks refuge in fantasy, denial and escapism.
Yet there’s also a jet-black humour to this absurd premise, typified by the scene where Castro sabotages a rival ‘Tony’ by defecating on his outfit. If the context feels a touch remote, audiences can at least latch on to this – Raul’s delusion being shared by every X-Factor expendable who ever stood in line for their microsecond of fame.