Surely one of the more repellent creations to inhabit arthouse screens this year, Raúl Peralta is a glowering brute of a man. Unemployed and undistracted in Pinochet’s Chile, he’s one of those desperate characters the movies are drawn to, nursing big, illusory dreams about turning his life around through a stonefaced, stiff impersonation of Tony Manero, the working-class Brooklyn dancer played by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. He sits through mostly empty matinee screenings at the local cinema, then rehearses his moves on the old, rotting stage at a squalid little nightclub while putting the make on the three women in his life: the club’s owner, Wilma (Elsa Poblete), his girlfriend, Cony (Amparo Noguera), and — why the hell not? — Cony’s nubile daughter Pauli (Paola Lattus). And he’s a rank opportunist who, as often as not, sees his countrymen each as minor obstacles between him and his next little stab at happiness.
In one early scene, he looks out the window of his apartment to spy an old woman on the street below being assaulted by a young thug. (I was reminded of sweet Weronika in Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Véronique peering out the window in her underwear, offering to help the woman below but never quite managing to leave her flat.) Raúl hustles down the stairs and onto the sidewalk and helps the lady to her feet and back to her apartment — where he clubs her over the head and steals her TV set in order to trade it to a local scrap dealer for some of the glass bricks needed to build the lit-from-below set piece that he’s decided is necessary to complete his impersonation of Tony Manero.
As played by Alfredo Castro (who also takes a co-writing credit) Raúl looks like an aged Al Pacino starring in a Leonard Cohen biopic. Much as I hate to admit it, he’s not a completely unsympathetic character. Photographed in grainy, in-and-out-of-focus handheld Super 16 by director Pablo Larrain and cinematographer Sergio Armstrong — the strategy seems part Darren Aronofsky, part Dardenne Brothers — he’d be a real sad-sack case if it weren’t for his fairly fearsome amoral streak, which sees him rolling corpses for petty cash or going apeshit when the local theater finally pulls Saturday Night Fever from the marquee and replaces it with Grease. But as thoughtlessly, randomly evil as he seems to be, there’s something almost childlike about Raúl’s starry-eyed admiration of a movie character — not a movie star, mind, but simply a single fictional character — and his apparent inability to come to intellectual or emotional terms with the crisis in his home county, where Pinochet’s regime was harrassing, arresting, or simply disappearing members of the opposition. Larrain appreciates the depths of Raúl’s ignorance, poking conventional fun by setting him dancing around his room in his underwear (a parody not of Travolta in Saturday Night Fever but of Tom Cruise in that capitalist training film Risky Business), or by drawing some attention to appears to be the fella’s chronic struggle with erectile dysfunction. That’s fine, but, as targets go, this guy’s too much of a fish in a barrel for his character development to become resonant. Once the film reaches its notably open-ended climax, it seems Larrain as much as admits that he’s painted himself into a grim little corner.
Of course, there’s something a little witty in the notion that Saturday Night Fever, with its Bee Gees tunes and white disco suit, represents an early, devastating salvo in the ongoing American campaign of cultural imperialism abroad. There’s even a single scene of some short-lived joy in which Pauli and her boyfriend, Goyo (Héctor Morales), present some clever, Bollywood-inflected choreography to Raúl, who sourly rejects it because it doesn’t exist in his sacred text. But the only moment when I thought I caught director Pablo Larrain really cracking a smile came in a direct cut from one of Raúl’s acts of violence to the follow-on scene of Raúl placing the last blocks of glass in his faux-disco stage set with a sort of impassive satisfaction. And there’s a similarly sardonic tone to a scene late in the film that depicts Raúl sneaking out with impunity as the hammer comes down on his housemates — poor Goyo has been identified as a Communist pamphleteer — that suggests what Larrain really finds hard to take isn’t Raúl’s murderous tendencies, but his utter indifference to what’s become of the world around him. The sequence in which Raúl seduces Pauli as Cony looks on has a distinctive emotional queasiness that’s made all the more piquant in later scenes, as Cony goes back to behaving as though nothing especially untoward has happened. On personal and political levels it’s a sad film, perhaps best appreciated as a deadpan dark comedy about how ignorance, delusion, and selfishness can conspire to keep a people under the bootheels of a dictatorship.