Dir: Pablo Larraín | Cast: Alfredo Castro, Jaime Vadell, Antonia Zegers, Paula Luchsinger, Amparo Noguera, Gloria Munchmeyer | Chile, 115′
A vampire, all suited, booted and cloaked, flies over the rooftops of Santiago in Pablo Larrrain’s thrilling latest drama that has us believe that the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet is Margaret Thatcher’s firstborn (weird as he was born before herr). It’s an outlandish idea, one many of many, in this surreal doom-laden satire that reflects, with a baleful glare, on international fascism (wokeism et al) in the 20th century.
But although Larrain his co-writer Guillermo Calderon get rather bogged down in their phantasmagorical version of Chile’s modern political history El Conde is a witty and highly inventive feast for the eyes and certainly worthy of its slot in the competition line-up at Venice Film Festival‘s 80th celebration.
Macabre, gothic and hilarious by turns – you certainly won’t go home disappointed – but the visual side far out-trumps (!) the political version of events, its lugubrious black and white set pieces are some of the most alluring and inspired committed to celluloid in recent years. An El Conde is certainly unlike anything the director has done before.
Pinochet is forced to endure a miserable existence, past his retirement in 1990 and subsequent demise in 2006, as the undead dictator grimming it out in a chilly cattle-shearing outpost in the freezing South of the country (reminiscent of Theo Court’s White on White). Here he will face his own family demons, the main concern being the financing of his brood of layabout adult offspring, dealing with his ghastly wife (Gloria Münchmeyer) who is having an affair with his butler (the brilliant Alfredo Castro), a White Russian who will oversee the investigation into where Pinchochet has hidden his millions. For this purpose he has (bizarrely) hired a nun (Paula Luchsinger) who wears white robes, when not doing accounts in her bedroom, and in these scenes she’s a dead ringer for Maria Falconetti in Dreyer’s 1928 drama La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc.
But before all this Larrain briskly takes us through the dictator’s previous existence as blood-thirsty rebel ‘Pinoche’ during the French Revolution. Valiantly in allegiance to Marie Antoinette, he takes her head with him as a trophy after her execution (guillotines feature heavily throughout). He then glides Dracula-like southwards towards Chile where he signs up to the ranks in the 1973 coup. After faking his own death, the 250 year-old continues to drift around over the Chilean capital – and these airborne sequences are the most exciting in the film. Too old to hunt for blood, his daily diet then consists of human heart ‘smoothies’ which he whisks up in the trusty blender.
El Conde is a fascinating foray then, and mostly narrated in English by the aforementioned Iron Maiden ‘Madame Pinochet’ who certainly gets it in the neck, above all the other vampiric political leaders, supposedly just for being a woman ‘Twas ever thus!. MT
VENICE FILM FESTIVAL | BEST SCREENPLAY | GOLDEN LION 2023 | COMING TO NETFLIX ON 15 SEPTEMBER