SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ Films on the Seat at the Back playlist right now: KIDS IN LOVE; JUNE; CURVE; WILD, BARELY LETHAL; GODDESS OF LOVE; THE VATICAN TAPES .. What a night in!

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

TONY MANERO (2008) - A review of a film that makes Saturday Night Fever seem about as threatening as a school disco.



* There may be some spoilers on the dancefloor - watch before reading!*

Raul is a man just beyond middle-aged; a little bit past his prime. Not very good at anything. Except maybe dancing. Trouble is - Raul's knees aren't too happy these days about the kind of disco dance moves they are forced to take the strain of. But that's not going to stop Raul from doing what he now knows he was born to do - dance the disco!
Meet Raul Peralta - a man looking for a way to escape from a life where all he has to rely on is mimicking the John Travolta role of iconic dancing king Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever. For a living. Or chance of a living. It's a shot at stardom, doomed to fail, but what else is there to rely on?

The dark days of the Pinochet dictatorship hang heavy in daily life all around him; his heart is blackened, and the soot falls heavy on the white suit he wears to the dance class. But the dancefloor holds more hope than any of the streets this man walks down; any of the bedrooms he finds himself stumbling into.



Raul's obsession with Manero is absolute. And being Manero is his only purpose in life. He spends all he can on cheap and chipped glass tiles to make a pathetic little disco dancefloor to impress his fellow dancers with - a group of wide-eyed and hope-drained followers who see the white suit Raul wears as evidence of freedom; of a better life. Raul sees himself as some kind of a tutor to this lost group of dancing fools - as the kingpin; as the real-life Tony Manero of the dance floor. 

It's a ragged and ruined dance class where nobody is much good, but everyone sees dance as the only way to experience a taste of freedom. To do what you want. It's that or sex. And sex, especially for Raul, is equally ragged and ruined in this life.

As the memorable tagline for the movie winks and slyly tells us: 'It's murder on the dance floor' - although in Raul's case, murder mostly takes place off the dance floor, behind closed doors; in tiny rooms where nobody sees what's really happening. Like opponents of the Pinochet regime being shot in lonely places; the violence in this world is kept as hidden as it can be - like a dirty secret that everyone knows about, but nobody wants to face up to. Suppression of a country, suppression of the person. Suppression of hope. Travolta had a hell of a better chance of escape in his movie. This Tony Manero gets almost none.

Raul's love life is equally bleak, though he does at least have one. There's a surprising amount of sex (of the very nearly but not quite fully consummated kind) in this movie - his hangers-on have started to believe Raul's promise of possible future fame and glory, and some of them even see that the promise could be made even more real if they bed the man as well as cheer on his dance moves. So Raul seeks occasional company in the arms of his dull-eyed but willing girlfriend Cony (Amparo Noguera) and later in the arms and untidy bed of his girlfriend's daughter Pauli (Paola Lattus in a stunning performance of quiet desperation).
Pauli is a girl conspiring against the Pinochet regime but ultimately doomed to lose everything in every way possible. So what if this first act of treachery, cheating on her mother's boyfriend, goes unrebuked? It's surely no worse that anything else happening in the young girl's life - or any of their lives. Everyone gets a shot at happiness - you take what you get.

Raul is seen walking the perma-strutting daughter through the living room to the bedroom after a few too many drinks; right past her watching friends and right in front of his sad-eyed but strangely passive girlfriend, in a quite unsettling and shocking scene. Like residents watching a beating in the road where they live, but not wanting to get involved through fear of what may happen - the only people who matter in Raul's life watch him commit the ultimate fall from grace. The big stab to the heart of the man.

Earlier, Raul had watched the pretty girl peel away layers of rain-soaked clothing as he worked on building his glass-tiled dancefloor in the backyard, trying not to let others know he was watching the daughter of his lover stand there naked, probably knowing he was watching - the old woman owner of the house scolding the girl to cover herself up. Now, not one of the watchers to this scene of senseless seduction - including Raul's girlfriend who, suddenly, at this moment, becomes more 'the young girl's mother' and less the 'girlfriend'- try to stop the event taking place.

This is a way of life - there is no other way. A life where watching and keeping quiet is often better than 'doing'. You get what you get, no questions asked. There is a sort of freedom away from the oppressive restrictions of daily life. It's a life where anything and everything goes, so long as you don't do it anywhere where people who count may be watching. Under the smothering blanket of dictatorship, a frantic fumble under the covers can take place in some safety, unknown to all but those who are up close and willing to be witnesses to the sleaze that is shown off in secret; in the same way, under this blanket of secrecy, can the frantic fumbling seeds of opposition to dictatorship be sown. Or like Raul's own ability under the covers; perhaps not quite sown - just thought about a lot. 

Raul's obsession with the film Saturday Night Fever, playing daily at the local picturehouse, is absolute. It's freedom and escape. But in the end; it's a curse and a slippery slope into total immorality. In real life; in Raul's reality - old women get mugged, projectionists get beaten to a pulp when they play (horror of horrors) the film Grease where Travolta is no longer the harder-edged Tony Manero character, but a character all bright and breezy and wearing a different outfit, with different dance moves.

Damn it - Raul's spent too much time on the Saturday Night Fever moves to get a new set of rules to follow just yet. You only get that one shot, that one chance. This - Raul trying to be Tony Manero; a man who found eventual escape from a life going nowhere thanks to a white suit and some nifty moves on the dancefloor, is his one chance. Raul's big dream is to win the 'Tony Manero of Chile' competition. Trouble is - he's not a very good Tony Manero. He's more Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon or especially Scarface; more Tony Montana than Tony Manero. It's all going to end in almost certain cinematic bloodshed.

In the original Saturday Night Fever, a girlfriend of Travolta's character compares him to Pacino after kissing him on the dancefoor: "Ohh, I just kissed Al Pacino" she croons - a smart link to Raul's Travolta also ending up more like Pacino as some kind of mantra; the idea of not being able to drag yourself out of a life full of violence, crime and decay however hard you pretend or try.

Al Pacino in Scarface didn't dance. But he did kill - very well. Raul can dance - but not that well. He slips and stumbles at key moves; his knee giving way. The lingering camera doesn't zoom in on any reaction when the inevitable, literal fall - or slip from assumed perfection, comes. Raul carries on with the dance - and the camera does too. In a way, the camera tries to hide what Raul is also hiding; as if we may not notice. But we do. This is masterly direction from Pablo Larrain. And even when Raul commits acts of desperate violent frustration; we hardly blink, we hardly tut our tongues. This man is on the way out; he may not have lost it all - the chance to win a competition and be someone and to have a girl who sort of loves him still remain. But he is losing what he does have fairly rapidly. You can't kick a man when he's down. Raul couldn't be closer.

It's clear from the start of the movie that we seem to be heading towards a less than happy conclusion here; but in the last reel there's a chance it may not all end in absolute failure. A decision in the final stages of the dance competition could go either way, with just two contenders up for the crown at the last dance saloon - could Raul actually win? Is he the 'new best Tony Manero impersonator' in Chile? Is this the way out that Raul seeks -or the start of something worse? He will either come first or second. But a runner-up is just another nobody. The decision is made. One of the two final contenders will soon be dead. There's no other way.




You may think in today's world that the likes of Simon Cowell can destroy hopes and ambitions from dead end lives on shows such as The X Factor, but for Raul, in this competition; to lose at the final stages would mean to lose everything. Literally everything; including his own life. If he isn't Tony Manero, he isn't anyone. Without some hope or even a body to live in; to cling on to - you die. Raul is dead. Only Raul being Tony Manero keeps this man alive - this Frankenstein's monster of the dancefloor; all wide collars instead of neck bolts. White suits instead of rags. If that's gone - he's gone too.

So, with Raul's very existence at stake - will there be a win, or will there be nothing? There will be no tears on stage, just seething anger, if he loses. The real Manero doesn't cry. Neither does this one - ever. He just gets even. If the X Factor had this kind of passion, viewing figures would double. Raul never quite gets anywhere. Not even in his sex life.

Back to that scene where he beds his girlfriend's daughter, Pauli. He gets close to having sex with her - he strips her naked. Really close. But that's about it. As a man, Raul is unable to make love. But he really wants to. He wants to make love like Tony Manero would. He wants it to be wild, passionate, crazy love. But even with his own girlfriend, Cony, we soon realise nothing much happens for Raul, even in bed (especially obvious after a fairly explicit scene of his loss of interest) - and this despite his girlfriend's best intentions. The daughter only gets to satisfy herself too without Raul's help - again, fairly explicitly - on the edge of the bed while the man himself lies beside her, lost in his dreams of white-suited Hollywood stardom. He is Tony Manero, but a Tony Manero with imperfections - if he was a Manero doll he wouldn't be let out of the factory.

When asked what his profession is at the dance contest, Raul looks puzzled: "This" he replies, without seeing the irony. At all. Raul's story is one born of tragedy and probably unlikely to have a happy ending. But in his neighbourhood, there are lives that lean into even more tragic waters; where being shot in the head in a lonely place is the alternative to being a Tony Manero wannabe.


Perhaps, in some ways, instant death is preferable to the long, slow, torture of Raul's life. At the end of the movie, it's obvious that there is a lot more descending into darkness and decay going on here than we've already witnessed. Raul may do something unexpected and nasty to the suit of a rival (in a scene that is really quite disgusting and puts to bed any hope that Raul isn't as depraved as he may at first appear), but it's his own white disco suit that is forever ruined; that will forever be missing the right number of buttons to make him a true Manero impersonator - a suit that is already splashed with the blood of the innocent. For as long as he keeps wearing the costume, Raul's life will be doomed to failure, but the reality is - there is no other way.

The performance of Alfredo Castro as Raul is heart-wrenching, absolute and intense. It's real, without the barriers of a performance to distract; he is Raul, in the same way he will never be Tony Manero. The film is littered with clips from the Travolta movie and with the familiar songs of the Bee Gees - and there is some eroticism to be had in the way Raul seduces those around him. But it doesn't last long - arousal (like the quick film clips or brief snippets of familiar songs) is fleeting for Raul and for us too; it's a film of one big letdown after another. Even the violent scenes are less that they threaten; the camera hides from the more close-up horrors - deliberately and effectively; although horrors they still are. Hidden horrors. Like those under the rule of a dictatorship often are.

Tony Manero is a film that refutes the beauty and passion in hardship; denies its existence and embraces the blackest humour and lives the darkest of days. There's no 'bad boy made good' moral to be found here. No pot of gold or winning ticket at the end of this rainbow; this great glass elevator is chipped and broken and going nowhere. It's a film that examines the stark tragedy of Raul's life with all blemishes intact - his life singled out among the stark tragedy of all those other similar lives around him, although perhaps few sink quite as low as Raul does; this is a man who can murder to stay sane - there is no final redemption or salvation.

Unlike the Tony Manero he emulates; there is no real stage to strut his stuff on here  - no yellow brick road. Just a tiny section of dancefloor made of chipped glass tiles. And a suit with the wrong kind of buttons. But still we want Raul to keep dancing; to keep performing - for ourselves and for himself. There has to be a happy ending of sorts, doesn't there, like on the TV shows? Now, just think - how would you feel if Simon Cowell told you that you couldn't sing, even though everyone else close to you (and you yourself) think you can. Then multiply that feeling by a hundred.

That is how Raul feels.

words: mark gordon palmer


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