Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Film review: El Conde

We need to laugh at the monsters so they'll lose the power to intimidate us

What if Augusto Pinochet were an unholy, blood-drinking abomination excreted from the bowels of hell? Ask any Latin American antifascist, and the likely response will be, "What do you mean, 'if'?" The Chilean dictator, forever accursed be his memory, left a frightening legacy of thousands of assassinated opponents, tens of thousands of torture survivors, and hundreds of thousands of exiles. To this day, the whereabouts of many disappeared Chileans remain unknown. Pinochet's regime boasted a gruesome creativity in devising torture and execution methods, and the nation's collective trauma will take generations to overcome. To imagine him as a vampire whose depravity hungers for the hearts of young Chileans doesn't feel too far from reality.

Pablo Larraín's film El Conde, released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the US-supported coup that threw Chile under military rule, paints the 21st century with a black-and-white palette that warns the viewer: this isn't over. The shadow of the beast hasn't left this realm. With enough hearts in his grasp, he can rise again. In this version of events, Pinochet is revealed to have been a French royalist soldier who escaped the Revolution's guillotine and swore to combat the egalitarian cause wherever he found it. After centuries of cruel predation and countless battles on the side of tyranny, the monster found his way into the Chilean army, where he ascended the ranks until becoming the deadly general known to history.

Fast-forward to the present time. Retired into self-imposed anonymity, having staged a fake death to evade justice, the ex-dictator still emits an all-polluting aura around him. The film refuses to give the viewer a distanced character from whose perspective the villain can be comfortably judged; the general's entire circle is rotten. His wife wants his immortality, his children want his secret fortune, and his butler wants the return of the old days when he was a teacher of torturers. The subtext is close to the surface: for as long as there has been fervor for emancipation, there has been authoritarian reaction, and anyone senseless enough (or soulless enough) to try to use its tainted gifts becomes used by it. El Conde undertakes the delicate challenge of maintaining the audience's investment in a story where every single character is horrible. Even the pious nun sent in a secret mission to cleanse the old vampire from his demonic stain has a secondary agenda to search for any of his undeclared assets that might be of use to the Church. Acting upon the arrogant belief that the Church can profit from evil without becoming one with it, she willingly falls under his corrupting and treacherous curse.

By this point you must be wondering why El Conde is being announced as a comedy.

It's a macabre type of comedy, one where characters have no trouble speaking of the unspeakable with a deadpan shrug. Atrocities worth multiple capital sentences are mentioned in passing, with the casual tone one uses to talk of the weather. The absurdity of listening to these absolutely irredeemable people provokes in the viewer the kind of nervous laughter that is the last resort when no shriek will do. Undead antics aside, the portions of the film that would conventionally be classified as horror are transmuted by the audience's knowledge that each monstrous act described in the dialogues actually happened in real life. This is not the safe viewing experience of your typical slasher romp, where you know it's all props and makeup. Nor is it the comedy of Halloween farces, where the trappings of decay are mere setup for an inoffensive jump scare. This is the sweaty chuckle you blurt out almost involuntarily as a wolf slowly advances toward you.

This incredibly difficult blend of tones is helped by the choice to film in black and white. For one part, it disguises the rather crude visual effects, which instead of cheap look uncanny, in consonance with the forbidden powers they represent. But also, the use of black and white gives the story a somber atmosphere, not only symbolic of how contemporary Chile still hasn't rid itself of Pinochet's spell, but also aesthetically captivating. It's as if this story couldn't be told except in chiaroscuro, with the black void of the vampire's silhouette infusing the world with his pervasive miasma, never letting the light of day reach its full brightness. The world is a dull, gray place because Pinochet has passed through it. And for a few seconds we get a quick scene in color, and we start to believe the nightmare might be over, but it's only to show us with more clarity that we're not safe, that the seeds from which this evil emerged may yet bear more poisoned fruit.

Nerd coefficient: 9/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.