Tony Manero is the character played by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, and who serves as the inspiration for Raul, a 50-something man who's main goal is to win a variety show's contest to find Chile's own Tony Manero. Set in Augusto Pinochet's Chile of the late 1970's, the film pushes Raul (played by Alfredo Castro), his girlfriend Cony, her grown daughter Pauli, and Pauli's boyfriend Goya front-and-centre, pushing the politics of the time into an ever-present and looming backdrop. Taking a slice of a week in their lives, the film follows the group as they practice their dance routine for a local bar, and follows Raul into an descending cycle of violence as his obsession with Tony Manero takes over to the exclusion of all else.
Raul is an almost completely unsympathetic psychopath, prone to unexpected outbursts of violent behaviour, making this film challenging to watch at times. The politics of the time peek out from the background now and then, giving a feel for what it must have been to live in such an oppressive state without being overly didactic. I got the sense that while the others viewed dancing as an escape from their lives, for Raul, it was simply a compulsion that soon consumed him completely. A good film, with some good performances, especially by Castro, but definitely not a light film that you can just breeze by.
Director and co-writer Pablo Larrain was in attendance, and stayed for a Q&A after the film:
- Castro couldn't be in Toronto, as he was in Chile getting ready to go to Japan.
- It was surprisingly easy to get the rights to footage of Saturday Night Fever, not very expensive. Paramount understood it was an art-house movie that wasn't out to damage the film. And since Grease falls under the same studio, they only had to deal once.
- There was a parallel between Raul and Pinochet; Raul's impunity, rage, and anger mirrored that of the regime. His unexpected behaviour and violence is also that of the country; he's not alone, he's not the only one.
- Larrain talked to homicide detectives of that time, and they said they didn't have time to deal with regular crimes like those in the film, because they were all working for the regime.
- Castro didn't base the character on anyone in particular; he also didn't watch Saturday Night Fever, just the dance scene and the scene where Manero's brother talks about leaving the church.
- Larrain said that sometimes when you make a film, you're trying to tell a story, but what you really want is to get a tone or atmosphere, and that's what films are in the end, more than the dramatic plot. It's a mood you're trying to reach.
- The tone of this film was in the air of those days; Castro was 20 in those days, so he probably based his character more on his own personal experience of that time than on anyone else.
- The abrupt ending was intentional, as he was trying to show to the audience a fragment of someone's life by showing 4 or 5 days of a life, and the film begins and ends with movement; there's no sudden Hollywood-like climax. We don't know where he's going, what he's going to do, what he's thinking or feeling; the audience may complete that themselves.
- The scenes which were blurred or out-of-focus reflect how people who lived through that time tended to have hazy recollections, how it's like a bad dream you don't want to remember.
- They didn't want to idealize anything, so that why it's hard to watch at times; he also referred to the realistic, flawed sex scenes in the movie as another example of trying not to show things as beautiful when they weren't.
- The dialogue was about 70% scripted, and the rest improvised by everyone. Things change a lot on set.
- In 1976, Pinochet brought in a bunch of young US-educated people who changed the social and economic systems of Chile, and by the time of the film in 1978, we see the impact of that. European films and culture were often banned, so US culture was what was imported. Raul sees Travolta's working-class character as similar to him, but actually he's not, as Raul is 50, he doesn't look like him or dance like him, but he still wants to be him, and Larrain sees the film as about that and the story of his country.