Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Man in the White Suit

(Pablo Larraín, Chile/Brazil, 2008, 95 mins.)

"Al Pacino! Attica! Attica! Attica!"
-- Tony Manero (John Travolta)

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

As played by John Travolta, the Tony Manero of John Badham's Saturday Night Fever was a 19-year-old Brooklyn stud with a penchant for white suits and black shirts. As played by Alfredo Castro, the Raúl Peralta of Pablo Larraín's Tony Manero is a 52-year-old Santiago stud-wannabe with a penchant for...white suits and black shirts.

In Badham's 1977 cultural touchstone, the lanky lead imagined himself as a sort of disco-dancing Al Pacino: tough, but smooth (note the Serpico poster on his wall). The wiry Raúl, on the other hand, actually looks like the Pacino of a decade ago—before the eye work and the orange skin. If he isn't smooth, he's tougher than the preening Tony ("Watch the hair!"), because this aspiring entertainer doubles as a brutal killer.

In his second film, Larraín establishes Raúl's contradictory nature in brief, but ef-
fective brushstrokes: Peralta's obsession with Saturday Night Fever provides a release from the unrelenting gloom of life under Augusto Pinochet, while his lethal escap-
ades allow him to eliminate rivals and to obtain goods he can't otherwise afford.

As with Pacino's Tony Montana, Travolta's blue-collar Manero wasn't born to wealth either, but he worked for his money. As Raúl's junkyard associate tells him, "Things cost what they cost, not what you want them to cost," sensible words that mean no-
thing to a cold-blooded sociopath. When Raúl decides that his performance space needs a lighted-glass floor and a mirror ball, in order to recreate Fever's 2001 Od-
yssey in miniature, he finds some cruelly creative ways to make it happen (he and his three-person troupe live in the apartments above the cantina where they dance).

Further, he doesn't lack for female companionship, but like Warren Beatty's bank robber in Bonnie and Clyde, Raúl's impotence extends to his entire existence. Unlike Clyde Barrow, however, his appeal for the opposite sex strains credibility. The low-rent Pinochet of his barrio, he's cold and grubby, and neither charms nor satisfies
the ladies in his life, which seems to be Larraín's deeply cynical point. i.e. that the Chilean dictator's antipathy acted as an aphrodisiac on his more masochistic citizens.

Though he's in nearly every frame, trained stage actor and co-writer Castro gives
an otherwise vanity-free performance. If most antiheroes have one or two compen-
sating qualities, Raúl is about as likeable as the title character in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and those who failed to find the humor in Henry are likely to feel the same way about Tony Manero, its unlikely socio-political South American analogue.

While some have described the film as "ugly," both literally and figuratively, there's a beauty to Larraín's direction, the Super 16 cinematography (blown up to 35mm), and odd out-of-focus shot, making it a fever dream in every sense of the phrase.

"Oh fuck the future!"
-- Tony Manero (John Travolta)

"No, Tony! You can't fuck the future. The future fucks you! It catches up with you and it fucks you if you ain't planned for it!"
-- Fusco (Sam Coppola)

Tony Manero plays the Northwest Film Forum 8/21-27 at 7 and 9pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine on Capitol Hill. For more informa-
tion, please click here or call 206-829-7863. Images from Highlighter and the NWFF.

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