"Tony Manero": Stayin' Alive: The Dictatorship of Disco Fever By Gabriele Barrera

in 26th Torino Film Festival

by Gabriele Barrera

1979, almost thirty years ago. A suburb of Santiago in Chile. After the coup d’état of Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte, on September 11, 1973, the whole country lives under a reign of terror, a reign overlooked by a condor. Better to say, by Operation Condor. This is the name of the obsessive campaign of assassinations, intelligence-gathering, counter-terrorism against leftist subversives, political dissidents and the “Frente Patriótico”. What about freedom and human rights? They’re ‘desaparecidos’. But Chile’s darkest days, in 1979, coincide with the reign of an obsessive disco dance: a new cultural coup d’état made by the USA during their golden age. But, while Chile’s political fever is riding high, it is too insufferable for the mind of Raùl Peralta (Alfredo Castro), the sociopathic 52-year-old antihero of Pablo Larrain’s Tony Manero, the temperature of another fever, Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977), is a welcome escape. And so, “Open Sesame!”, sing Kool & the Gang on the soundtrack of the John Travolta film: a true opium for the people. The Bee Gees announce: “I’ve been kicked around since I was born. And now it’s all right, it’s o.k.”, with an obsessive rhythm, better than the local folklore or the tango. Finally, a stentorian voice. A new gospel for all the suffering lives. A disco-gospel, perhaps, for the sleazy life of Raùl, and or the different lives of all of us worldwide: the spectators.

The Way I Use My Walk

“Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk, I’m a woman’s man, no time to talk”, says the hypno-song by the Bee Gees. Indeed, no time to talk. And the way Raùl uses his walk isn’t only a simple movement of a wannabe disco-dancer, but is a true Brechtian ‘Gestus’. The Gestus: in the theatrical sense, it is the embodiment of an attitude. The Gestus of the serial-dancer-cinéphile and serial-psycho-killer Raùl — the forced flexibility of his body, that is an oxymoron — reveals a specific aspect of his character, and of that of all the tired and so-flexible people living under a long, cruel dictatorship.

“Ah ha ha ha stayin’ alive stayin’ alive, ah ha ha ha stayin’ alive stayin’ alive” ad lib. The Gestus and the attitude of Raùl, a gonzo one-track mind imitator of Travolta, the Saturday Night Fever’s Tony Manero, is a simple and regressive struggle for the survival of his mind. A survivor’s dance to forget reality. To forget freedom’s absence. To forget the darkness of an oppressive dictatorship. And stayin’ alive — on the contrary — means giving up the political fight. That is defecting from the “Frente”. Leaving class solidarity. Leaving all the normal friendships. Leaving the feeling for ordinary people. Afterwards:the cinematic-body of Travolta or of the disco-movies like Saturday Night Fever, Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978) or Staying Alive (Sylvester Stallone, 1983) are a mighty mind-suppression of any opposition and any frustration. “Ah ha ha ha”: this is the dictatorship of disco-fever. And see, it’s a strange coincidence, the amazing novel “78.08” by the Italian writer Tommaso Labranca, Milan 2008: the story of another antihero divided between Toni Negri, the political ideologue of the Italian extreme left, and the disco-dancer Tony Manero… So either in Chile or in Italy, during the years 1978-79 or 2008-09, under a total dictatorship or a thin cultural and media-dictatorship, happy 30th anniversary to the Son of the God of entertainment, a divine Son embodied by Tony Manero.

Folks! You Should Be Dancing!

Raùl, obsessed with John Travolta’s character, escaping the specter of Pinochet and his regime, commits any criminal act, even murder, to transform himself into his weird idol’s image — Tony Manero — and tries to win a look-alike contest on Chilean TV. Pablo Larraín creates a darkly comic and obliquely political portrait (like a reworking of the violent images of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, 1975) through the creative use of the negative format in 16mm to the printed format in 35mm, and the Gestus and the mind-landscape of Raùl Peralta / Tony Manero is dissected by an unrelenting, merciless use of the handheld camera. At the odd climax of Tony Manero, balanced between the Dardenne brothers and the eccentricity of the Chilean director Raúl Ruiz, Pablo Larrain repeats the compulsive and ur-fascist Gestus of Raùl — to raise one’s arm, to walk stiffly, to point one’s finger at the sky — and reveals some common prerequisites for any contemporary dictatorship. To raise the arm is a symbolic gesture.

The actor (and co-writer) Alfredo Castro is astonishing, with his ludicrous look-alike Manero — what a pity for Raùl! — in reality, he is a better look-alike of the hyper violent Al Pacino of Scarface (De Palma, 1983) or of John Cassavetes’ haughty and frightened look in Minnie and Moskowitz (1971). Alfredo Castro is worthy of an Oscar and Tony Manero is Chile’s 2009 Academy Awards official submission to the Foreign-Language Films category.