read skimmed* the synopsis about a sad, immensely dysfunctional 50-something Chilean man (Alfredo Castro) who is obsessed with "Saturday Night Fever," and names himself after John Travolta's Tony Manero character, we couldn't help but be somewhat disappointed simply because the film wasn't at all what we expected.
That's not to say Chilean director Pablo Larrain's second feature wasn't good, quite the contrary, but "Tony Manero," sounds like a fun and light dance musical but the picture was much darker and sometimes even more disturbing than we ever would have imagined. [*ed. more reason never to skim]
Set in mid-70s Chile during the grim days of the military dictatorship of General Pinochet (there's a dictum somewhere that states all Chilean art must recognize the '70s military coup for the rest of all eternity, eye-roll), the story follows the seemingly pathetic, but harmless Raúl, who is generally the only person in the theater watching repeat version of 'SNF' over and over again and repeating the English-dialogue to himself ad nauseum. He attempts to attend a Chile's Best Tony Manero dancer contest on a popular TV game show, but is turned away when he is told he's about a week too early.
Lumped with a hound dog expression, the quiet Raúl seems melancholy, lonely yet innocuous, but his obsession is soon revealed to be pretty psychotic and unpleasant. His, sort-of girlfriend Cony (Amparo Noguera), her daughter Pauli (Paola Lattus) and Pauli's communist-propaganda happy boyfriend Goyo (Héctor Morales), soon plan to put on a "Saturday Night Fever," dance show at a local bar, but Raúl's fixation for getting all the details right - including a glowing dance floor - turn increasingly sociopathic.
He steals, he robs, and there's random outbursts of violence that are extremely brutal — not because of what they show, but because they seem (initially, anyhow) out of nowhere and out of character. But as his delusion and mania grows, we become more accustomed to, but no less shocked, by his nuttiness. Shifting tones are a bit problematic as well, there's a lot of uncomfortable laughs in the picture, but then you become aghast and somewhere near the end you're not even sure what's funny or what's just brutally unconscionable (sometimes it's a bit of both, which sometimes makes you a bit guilty for finding it comedic). Sure, the film is absurdist (and genuinely funny), but perhaps it's lead is too unsympathetic. All the while, the police state seems to be closing in on Goyo, but Raúl's disco king fascination makes him almost entirely politically (and socially) oblivious.
What we're supposed to feel with "Tony Manero" is that the horrors of the police-state like dictatorship can drive people to all kinds of madness including brutalizing people in the name of an unhealthy obsession with disco, but what we're mostly left feeling is that a random, mostly unlikable obsessive needs help with or without an tyrannical military government oppressing daily lives. And that's not to diminish the dictatorship in Chile, we have family there and we know it on a personal level all too well, but if that's supposed to be motivation or the trigger for Raúl's demented behavior well not only does it seem inexcusable, it seems thin, as the elements of the autocracy appear to be too much on the sidelines of the film to directly influence the protagonist.
Sure, it's meant to be subtle, but there is a thing as too subtle. Lead actor Alfredo Castro (who also co-wrote the screenplay) does put in a chilling performance and the darkly comedic (sometimes inappropriately comedic) allegory is visible, but we're not sure "Tony Manero" was 100% successful in its goals (the more we read about the director's intentions the less we feel like we saw them onscreen). Strong, but flawed (though the ending is pitch-perfect). [B+]