Pablo Larraín has become one of the most interesting storytellers in the world of film, with his penchant for adapting true life tales into eerie explorations of some of recent history’s most (in)famous names and events. Neruda and No dove deep into the conflicting narratives of Chile’s complicated, violent political history, while Jackie and Spencer brought the suffering psyches of two towering cultural figures to the screen. Though a filmmaker who looks to the past and the people who populate it for his subjects, Larraín has never made a straightforward historical retelling or by-the-books biopic; his newest film, El Conde is no different.
EL CONDE ★★★ (3/4 stars)
El Conde is about Chile’s most well-known monster, Augusto Pinochet, who led the country under a brutal military dictatorship for nearly two decades, and the film literalizes the his inhumanity by making him a 250 year old vampire. No longer just a man who rose through the ranks of the Chilean army to lead a coup against the socialist government, the vampire Pinochet was born and bred in France, experiencing the French Revolution firsthand—and quenching his thirst for blood with the decapitated Marie Antoinette. After sowing discord and upsetting revolutions across the world for another century or two (the film’s cheeky narrator specifies Algeria, Haiti and Russia), he settles on Chile, where he’s set to spend the rest of his afterlife.
That said, the film finds Pinochet wishing to end things. Long out of favor with the Chilean government and populace, the aging vampire (played by veteran Chilean actor Jaime Vadell) is content to waste away in his rotting, isolated compound. His wife Lucía (Gloria Münchmeyer) and his butler and former right-hand-man Fyodor (Alfredo Castro) are at odds about his slow going suicide, but Pinochet’s gaggle of children are happy to hear that their father may soon pass (and pass along his funds). However, all plans are made moot with the arrival of Carmencita (Paula Luchsinger), a beautiful accountant-slash-nun with directives from multiple parties.
If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. Larraín and co-writer Guillermo Calderón’s screenplay lays out a constant criss-crossing of relationships and motivations. While the first act proceeds at a brisk pace, throwing down the exposition of this strange story with a snappy sense of rhythm, the second act lags and leaves space for confusion. The darkly funny satire gives way to more dramatic moments, but the characters are too thin to support that new narrative heft. The movie’s middle section is steeped in metaphor, with rich meaning about power, corruption and legacy to be reaped, but it’s all a bit too cloudy. El Conde does right itself with its third act twist, as the narrator’s true identity is revealed and the film’s thesis about the constancy of evil and fascism in our world solidifies.
The movie works best when it takes big swings, and the visuals reflect that too. The film is shot in black and white, heightening the sense of macabre contrast that the whole thing revels in. El Conde finds humor in every crevice on screen: the rich and powerful Pinochet lives in a dilapidated home on a barren plot of land. Though he feasts on the hearts of humans, he prefers to prepare his meals in a blender. The fearsome former dictator, responsible for the death of thousands, slouches around his house in a pair of off-brand track pants.
There are also some moments of majesty, as Larraín plays with the supernatural elements. The vampire Pinochet’s hunts involve the creature suiting up in his old military uniform, with a massive cape billowing behind him as he flies over the city of Santiago. It’s unsettling and beautiful imagery, all the while demonstrating his domination over the people there. The film’s most breathtaking moment, though, involves Carmencita; after reaching a kind of understanding with Pinochet, she experiences an otherworldly revelation that sees the movie soar.
El Conde is not Larraín’s best work, weighing itself down with plot and a few too many ideas to properly explore, but it is still quite good. Few directors take risks this big, and though this film doesn’t yield the most rewards, it’s a fascinatingly project. With Larraín, history never stays firmly in the past; instead, it haunts and lingers like a figure of the undead.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.