‘Tony Manero’ spotlights bizarre, imitative behavior

Thursday, September 10, 2009 at 9:53pm

Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s Tony Manero, which opens Friday at the Belcourt, looks at obsession and imitation and how one man’s immersion into an

It’s also a sobering examination of a nation under siege, a place where people’s lives have been destroyed by governmental oppression. Larrain alternates between these two stories, not always making a smooth transition, but ultimately presenting a pair of compelling narratives.

The film’s main tale spotlights a 52-year-old thug who wants to be a star. Raul Peralta (Alfredo Castro) is a serial killer and psychopath with absolutely no conscience. He’s operating in 1978 Chile, a nation under the grip of the Pinochet regime. Peralta is obsessed with becoming a celebrity and takes as his role model the John Travolta character in Saturday Night Fever. Peralta spends hours perfecting everything from Travolta’s walk and look to his clothing and dance floor moves. When he’s not robbing or killing, he practices his Tony Manero routine.

Then Peralta gets a chance to really become a star. He’s determined to win a “Tony Manero” impersonator contest and devotes even more time to becoming this character. Besides his mental problems, Peralta also has severe physical difficulties. Though he fancies himself a ladies man like the Travolta character, Peralta is barely literate and has problems with intimacy. Despite all these flaws, Raul Peralta still feels he can become the Chilean “Tony Manero.” He pushes and prods his associates, forcing them to join his quest.

Larrain alternates between spotlighting this character’s flights into insanity and inserting graphic shots of Chile under Pinochet. The brutality and horrors that occurred during this late ’70s reign of terror offer a grim dose of reality to balance out the fantasies Castro’s character repeatedly tries to fulfill. Tony Manero isn’t cheerful, happy or optimistic, and much of what it shows reveals humanity at its worst. But it also presents a chapter in Latin American and world history that shouldn’t be overlooked or forgotten.

‘Fever’ returns to re-ignite disco

The disco boom has come and gone, but Saturday Night Fever remains the prime cinematic view of that period. John Badham’s film and the Bee Gees’ songs in the soundtrack made the 1977 movie a cultural touchstone. John Travolta portrayed 19-year-old Tony Manero, a kid trapped in a dead-end hardware store job living in a decaying Brooklyn neighborhood.

The one place where Manero could find joy and happiness was on the dance floor of the 2001 Odyssey disco. There, he’s a king, the master of flashy moves, a debonair figure who attracts every woman in the club. Saturday Night Fever set records at the time for sales of a soundtrack LP and turned Travolta from a struggling TV actor and occasional recording artist into a top box office draw.

Saturday Night Fever will be shown as a midnight movie Friday and Saturday night at the Belcourt. In addition to providing the inspiration for the current film Tony Manero, it is also among the most entertaining, if now somewhat dated in terms of lexicon and look, dance-oriented productions.

Tony Manero
Directed by: Pablo Larrain
Written by: Pablo Larrain, Alfredo Castro, Mateo Iribarren
Starring: Alfredo Castro, Amparo Noguera, Hector Morales, Paola Lattus, Elsa Poblete
Time: 92 minutes
Rating: Not rated, but contains some violent and disturbing images and sequences
Our view: Bleak, often troubling and brilliantly acted and directed