As close to a gritty American New Wave film as a 2008 Chilean movie is likely to get, Pablo Larraín’s “Tony Manero” plays like equal parts “Taxi Driver,” “Scarecrow,” “Badlands” and “Saturday Night Fever,” which is no coincidence, as it’s set in 1978 and the protagonist — a short, glowering 50-ish crook living in Santiago — is obsessed with the “Fever,” John Travolta and somehow reproducing the film’s disco glamour in his own life. Before long, though, right around the time he impulsively beats a feeble old woman to death with his fists and steals her TV, we understand that he is not merely a misfit but a sociopath. Anything can happen.
The film has an early Scorsese-ian set of factors — our hero Raúl’s impenetrable showbiz obsession echoes “The King of Comedy,” too — but it also feels very 21st century-indie, all handheld grit, impatient jump cuts and brooding urban malaise. Yet the ironies belong to the ’70s, when Pinochet had freshly taken over Chile and the impact of a violent military dictatorship had already squashed the populace’s spirit, particularly the lower classes.
As he strides around the back alleys and grubby dives of the city’s slums like a pint-sized rooster, struggling to put on a cheap disco show in a café (a soccer ball glued with mirror shards does duty as the hanging disco ball), Raúl (Alfredo Castro) is virtually a walking metaphor, a one-man Chile driven mad by oppression and the allure of bullshit Hollywood dreams. Of course, the Travolta film itself is about a working class loser trying to escape his dreary life on the dance floor, and so Raúl is a mirror effect, a compounded reflection of nowhere men striving for an empty dream.
We first meet Raúl showing up to audition for a TV show where Chileans line up and impersonate stars (he’s a week early, when they’re looking at Chuck Norris stand-ins). His Tony Manero monomania eventually gets him on TV, and at the same time compels him to run roughshod over everyone in his small circle (including a prostitute with a teen slattern of a daughter) in order to perfect the café performance.
All the while, Larraín’s camera looks in at this leathery little sprig of a man (Castro resembles Hank Azaria far more than Travolta) and sees nothing, not a glimmer of communication. We never learn about his past, recent or distant. The emptiness can be sort of spectacular; all we see in the moment is a robotic pursuit of a meaningless, populist American movie idea, which has been leaked out to the world’s scrounger cultures like pollution.
Larraín has said that his film was intended as a commentary on contemporary Chile, which he sees as still doped on imported American lies. But whatever discreet political teeth the film has belong to the Pinochet years, since the General’s junta succeeded thanks to the funding and support of the Nixon administration.
Chile has plenty to be bitter about — untold mass graves’ worth. “Tony Manero” makes only implicit statements, in any case; it is otherwise an absurdly simple film, a cold eye cast upon one lost man in the middle of a forgotten society just getting more lost.
Our relationship to Émilie Dequenne’s heroine in André Téchiné’s “The Girl on the Train” is only marginally more intimate — Téchiné’s camera rarely strays very far from her, and often sits in her lap. And yet, her green eyes are never ours, she has the withholding demeanor of a surly teen, and her big crooked grin is far from ever being completely trustworthy.
It’s sharp casting, because this is a film about lies, and Dequenne’s Jeanne comes off as a masked girl, a grown-up version of the traumatized waif the actress played in the Dardenne brothers’ “Rosetta” in 1999, never given the chance to open up to the world. She’s indelible here, but also always at a distance — the film never gives her the dramatic opportunity to expose herself, quite realistically, so we’re never sure of much about her except that she’s lost, too.