If you go see one dark, violent, movie-referencing cinematic period piece about power and male identity this week, don’t make it Inglourious Basterds (that can wait). See director Pablo Larrain’s new film Tony Manero.
Much has been said about how Tony Manero uses its setting, Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship in 1978, as a backdrop to explore power, impotence and frustration, but I was struck simply by how well the film echoed the 1977 movie that so obsesses its main character, Raul. In many ways, Tony Manero is an amplified Chilean remake of Saturday Night Fever, with darker darks that make the lighter moments appear more bright and funny in juxtaposition.
And indeed, there are funny parts in Tony Manero. Earnest disco dancing is funny, when viewed thirty years later. But I think it is easy to forget that Saturday Night Fever was neither a comedy nor a musical. It was not the Rocky of dance movies (though at one point it was helmed by Rocky director John Avidsen).
Saturday Night Fever has very dark moments, makes audiences uncomfortable, often treats its female stars with shocking cruelty (if I remember correctly there are two rape scenes), and is based on an article about real young men in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, who have dead-end lives but find respect in the dance hall on Saturday nights. Actress Karen Lynn Gorney even described it as “more of a documentary” in the article “Fever Pitch” by Sam Kashner (published in Vanity Fair). The iconic dance scenes are what many people remember, but Saturday Night Fever is no Grease; it is a complex movie that many disenfranchised men, such as Tony Manero’s Raul, could understandably relate to. (And indeed they did—the film grossed $285 million and sparked a pop culture phenomenon around the world.)
So, I encourage you to see Tony Manero, not just as an exciting and interesting new work of cinema from Chile, but as a thought-provoking spin on an American classic; a Chilean interpretation of Saturday Night Fever.