Tony Manero

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Cannes, Directors' Fortnight 

CANNES -- Not for the faint of heart, or for those who like their protagonists all warm and cuddly, this second feature of Chilean director Pablo Larrain, despite its various forms of crudeness, is vital and strangely arresting. Even better, its political critique of the Pinochet dictatorship is indirect and subtle, and thus all the more welcome and fresh.

Awkwardly photographed and obviously made on the tiniest of budgets, it's hard to imagine much theatrical play beyond Chile, if there, and TV buyers will be put off by its violence and a few disgusting images. However, festival programrs searching for something intense and very different from Latin America should definitely take a look.

It's 1978, and Raul Peralta is a fiftysomething loser and petty criminal who is obsessed with John Travolta and his performance as Tony Manero in "Saturday Night Fever." Raul regularly attends screenings whenever possible, and has memorized all the dialogue. He even bests all rivals in his knowledge of the minutiae of the film's costuming. The problem is that he becomes so intent on winning a John Travolta look-alike contest on television that he starts killing people who get in his way. And not very prettily either.

Virtually every character in the film, including Raul, is a low-life driven by the basest of motives and desires. Even the middle-class owner of the bar where Raul and his little group perform every weekend is an unappealing Pinochet supporter. Complicating things, and unbeknownst to her or to Raul, Goyo, a young male dancer in Raul's group, is also clandestinely distributing anti-Pinochet pamphlets.

Heads are routinely bashed in, the sexual encounters are gross and supremely unsexy, and in one memorable scene, Raul defecates all over Goyo's white Travolta suit in order to keep him out of the running in the television contest. There is also something supremely grotesque, yet also powerful, in the image of Raul imitating Travolta's dance moves while in tight (and probably dirty) briefs.

The camera work is all hand-held and seemingly full of the greatest possible number of jump cuts, and several scenes are, perhaps purposely, completely out of focus. Yet the film also gives you the feeling that you have no idea what's going to happen next, or what new outrage Raul and his gang are going to inflict on us. And that in itself is cause for some cheer.

The political critique is nowhere and everywhere. Pinochet's secret police regularly pop up to harass dissenters, and we occasionally see the esteemed dictator on television. Director Larrain doesn't seem to be implying any cause-and-effect relationship between the dictatorship and a unique phenomenon like Raul, but the mere juxtaposition of the two speaks volumes.

Cast: Alfredo Castro, Amparo Noguera, Hector Morales, Paola Lattus, Elsa Poblete. Director: Pablo Larrain. Screenwriter: Pablo Larrain, Alfredo Castro, Mateo Iribarren. No rating, 99 minutes.

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