The Sad Dance of 'Tony Manero'

Michael Guillen September 9, 2009

Chilean director Pablo Larraín's sophomore feature Tony Manero concerns itself with Raúl Peralta (Alfredo Castro), a man in his fifties obsessed with the idea of impersonating Tony Manero, John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever; an obsession situated in the midst of the tough social context of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. Raúl leads a small group of dancers regularly performing at a bar located in the outskirts of the city. Every Saturday evening he unleashes his passion for the film’s music by imitating his idol. His dream of being recognized as a successful showbiz star is about to become a reality when the national television announces a Tony Manero impersonation contest. His urge to reproduce his idol’s likeness drives him to the edge of his humanity.

Tony Manero arrived at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival laureled with the top prize from the 26th annual Turin Film Festival, as well as the FIPRESCI prize for best film, and best actor honor for Alfredo Castro. It had also been chosen as Chile’s submission to the 81st Academy Awards in the category of Best Foreign Language Film. Larraín took time to sit down and speak with me at that time. His emotions were mixed. On one hand he was appreciative of the opportunity to attend the Toronto International; but, on the other hand, he missed his wife and newborn daughter Juana back home in Chile.

Tracking the origins of the film, Larraín related that he came upon a book entitled Drink in a museum store at the Reina Sofia in Spain, which—because he was alone and bored—he began reading. The book included a black and white photograph of a guy, maybe 55 to 60 years old, sitting in a chair in his underwear, with his shoes on, looking out a window with a gun in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Larraín became captivated by the image and wondered, "Who is this guy?" Turning the page he discovered another photo of the same guy in the same room lying in bed receiving sexual favors from a woman with a strange body. In both photographs, the subject was similarly positioned and appeared to be in the same state of mind. Larraín was fascinated.

When he returned home to Chile with the book, he arranged to meet with Alfredo Castro to share the image. Larraín asked Castro, "What do you see here?" Castro answered, "Wow. I see a murderer, a killer, and—I don’t know why—but, I see a dancer." Larrí asked him if he wanted to create the character for a film and Castro replied enthusiastically, "All right! Let’s do it." Two and a half years later, after multiple revisions to a script collaboratively written with Castro and Mateo Iribarren, Tony Manero strutted into the festival circuit.

Admittedly more allegory than metaphor, Larrí explained that—though Raúl Peralta could be thought of as a metaphor for the Chilean people under Pinochet’s regime—he preferred the prospect of playing Peralta straight. "A metaphor seems to be something that stands in for something else," Larraín complained, "It’s not played straight." He envisioned Peralta as a result of his society: an enraged individual, acting without impunity, whose desires reflected the enraged behavior of the Pinochet regime. Larraín insisted, however, that Tony Manero was not preaching politics. First of all, he was only two years old during the Pinochet regime so—without direct experience—all he can say is what he has heard. "I don’t know if someone like Raúl—with all the elements that make up his character—existed during those years," Larraín offered; but, during those years the police—who were working in collusion with an oppressive, militaristic government—weren’t concerned with common criminals who were left to act without impunity, stealing and killing and—in some cases, if not all—without the police becoming involved. Further, in 1976 several Chilean students studied in Chicago and returned to Chile with new economic ideas. Pinochet appointed them to the Ministry of Economics and they succeeded in changing Chilean economy and culture. Chileans started importing goods—cinema for example, Saturday Night Fever specifically—from other countries and lost much of their roots in the process. It was that combination of forces that intrigued Larraín.

Tony Manero addresses issues of identity and Larraín’s stated interest is where and why identity changes. "What do you grab and what do you lose when your identity changes" he posed. It’s precisely because of Raúl Peralta’s amorality that Tony Manero has not been popularly received by Chilean audiences. "They want Raúl to be redeemed somehow," Larraín ventured, though conceded that audiences were right to question, "Why doesn’t Raúl change? Why doesn’t he achieve redemption? Why does Tony Manero only depict one side of this story and one side of Chilean history?" For Larraín, such questions underscore what the film is about. Larraín doesn’t believe everyone changes or achieves redemption. "If that’s what you want," he argued, "turn to a Hollywood film, where the bad guy at the end turns into a good guy."

As Larraín suggested earlier, Raúl Peralta’s amorality insinuates a lack of morality in the government. "It’s important to remember," he stressed, "that the character of Raúl Peralta was born in 1928, at a time when 30% of Chileans didn’t wear shoes. Do you understand what I’m saying? I’m talking about a lack of educational opportunity. A lack of ethical training. Maybe Raúl Peralta was from that 30%? Maybe he was raised on a farm? Maybe when he came to the city, he changed and started to get information from cinema imported from other parts of the world? From the U.S. especially, because the Chilean government didn’t allow many European films in those days, especially any that reflected an ideology they deemed dangerous. So you end up with this guy who’s an alien. Society has transformed him. They encourage him to come watch a film Saturday Night Fever where the protagonist Tony Manero is a working class hero who can change his life through the American dream, through dance." What Larraín considers "amazing and extremely beautiful" is Raúl's inherited belief that the American dream is possible for him in Chile. Despite Raúl not being able to dance like Saturday Night Fever’s Tony Manero, let alone look like him (being Chilean and 30 years older), this doesn’t neutralize Raúl’s identification with Tony Manero’s working class dream, even if it is a dream fraught with obstacles. "Raúl doesn’t know how to treat people," Larrí characterized, "He’s extremely violent. All these combined factors of dance, law, politics, reflect something much bigger than his self. Raúl is a copy of a copy of a copy."

Perhaps it is precisely this pathetic misappropriation of a cinematic dream that causes audiences to feel compassion for Raúl Peralta, despite his faults and limitations? Even as facsimile, he is not without an authentic charisma, which speaks to how far he has gone—and is willing to go—for his ambitions. Larraín agreed that audiences want to like or not like a character in a film. Their sympathy for Raúl Peralta is all the more amazing for being somewhat anomalous. Usually audiences like the good guy or the guy who’s in trouble; but, sometimes—and Tony Manero is proof—audiences are capable of appreciating a loser whose dreams and ambitions are compromised from the start. "That’s an ethical decision on the part of the audience," Larrían opined. "It’s compassion for the stupid guy, for the guy who is from the Third World trying to make his living and who can’t get an erection. In the end it’s that kind of compassion that allows you to like Raúl. Humanity is based on many things but mostly on compassion, which can be an interesting tool filmmakers can use. If your character won’t change and redeem himself by becoming a nice guy, then maybe you can hook the audience through their compassion." All the more remarkable if a filmmaker can engineer such compassion without the audience feeling manipulated.

Curious how he had figured out how to hook audience compassion for an admittedly unattractive protagonist, Larraín felt the puzzle come together—not while writing the script—but in the shooting during discussions with Alfredo Castro. Though originally Larrí was going to cut the scene where Raúll dances alone in the room, Castro encouraged him to keep it, recognizing its importance. "It speaks to when you’re alone in your room," Larraín explained. "We all do weird things when we’re alone. We all know we do that, but we don’t want to talk about it. What’s interesting is to gain access to those private moments. When you look into the private moments of others, sometimes you see those moments are somehow connected to you. Everybody at some point in his or her life wants to be somebody different, maybe someone more successful or more beautiful, maybe if you’re into basketball you want to be Michael Jordan. Everybody wants to be somebody else. I think an audience connects with that when they see the same behavior in film characters. We recognize obsessions in common. Maybe we don’t have the guts to act upon those obsessions. Maybe we aren’t willing to die for them or to do whatever we have to do to achieve them; but, some do."

Whether Raúl Peralta is a coward who doesn’t have the guts to die for his dream or a determined survivor who has the guts to live for it, he eschews expected heroics so that he can live chasing after his obsession. Whether Raúl’s identity is ever made clear, audiences witness his actions.

"Tony Manero is just four days in the life of Raúl Peralta," Larraín summarized. "Those four days are just a fragment of his whole life. The film starts with movement and it ends in movement. No judgment. Nothing else. We just witness those four days."

Raúl Peralta’s sad dance as Tony Manero achieves added poignancy in the face of slackened American distribution prospects for Latin American film, as outlined in Eugene Hernandez’s recent survey for indieWIRE. Despite its critical pedigree, Tony Manero has earned little in its dream to find an audience. Kudos to the San Francisco Film Society for booking the film at the Kabuki screen.