‘El Conde’ Review: His Bite Is Worse

by The Technical Blogs


Pablo Larraín’s black-and-white horror spoof “El Conde” is founded on a ferocious sight gag: the former dictator Augusto Pinochet soaring into the night on a quest for human blood. Military cape flapping about his thighs, Pinochet flies with his back as straight as an early Superman serial — a tip-off that Larraín (“Jackie,” “Spencer”) needs the audience to play along with his cheeky reimagining of the despot as a 250-year-old vampire.

This Pinochet, played with imperious cruelty by Jaime Vadell, was once a rebel-eating French royalist who sailed to South America in search of fresh meat. It’s a comic premise — what, is this part of the “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” extended universe? — except Larraín is only half-laughing. History’s Pinochet oversaw the execution or disappearance of thousands of Chileans. Larraín’s version of the man did that, too, with just one tweak: He blends his victims into a smoothie.

The director has been sharpening his tools for this confrontation. Born in Santiago three years after Pinochet seized power in 1973, Larraín earned early acclaim from the period pieces “Tony Manero” (2009), “Post Mortem” (2012) and the Oscar-nominated “No” (2013), a trilogy of satires that used Pinochet as an unseen boogeyman. The director shifted his attention beyond Chile with two psychodramas that punctured the iconography of Jacqueline Kennedy and Princess Diana and turned political celebrity into a waking nightmare. He’s circled home, he has said in interviews, because he believes his country remains divided — and haunted — by not just Pinochet’s crimes but also his impunity. The ex-president successfully dodged trial until his death in 2006. And Larraín has resurrected him to drag him into the light.

Our setting is the present where we find Pinochet hiding out in Patagonia, a shivery excuse for exaggerated mists and cruel winds that howl under every scene. (Ed Lachman’s gothic cinematography pairs well with Juan Pablo Ávalo and Marisol García’s violent strings.) The film begins as a series of dialogue-light flashbacks: Pinochet licks Marie Antoinette’s blood from a guillotine; he usurps the birthday of his wife, Lucia (Gloria Münchmeyer), by faking a heart attack; he struggles to play dead while a protester spits on his coffin. At first, the dehydrated vampire is too thirsty to do more than reminisce. While inert, he’s lavished with adoration by his Nazi butler (Alfredo Castro) and the British narrator (Stella Gonet) who does her bloody best to bludgeon the audience into agreeing that Pinochet is a national hero.

Larraín and his longtime writing partner Guillermo Calderón are delighted to put a Hammer horror spin on scenes that point toward the facts as often as they fib. Caught with a corpse in an 18th-century brothel, the young vampire uses the same defense the real Pinochet gave when asked if he headed Chile’s secret police: “I don’t remember, but it’s not true. And if it were true, I don’t remember.” The line gets a laugh, but the stinger is our awareness that we’d rather grapple with Pinochet’s predations as camp than somber docu-reality.

The plot doesn’t kick in until Pinochet’s five greedy adult children arrive at his rural estate for their cut of his fortune. They’re aggrieved that he refuses to die, and equally piqued that he squirreled his money in so many hidden accounts that they need a financial whiz, an inquisitive nun named Carmen (Paula Luchsinger), to uncover his millions. Carmen’s Joan of Arc crop is a clue she considers the family’s mortal members to be bloodsucking parasites.

There are only so many ways to serve the film’s easily digestible metaphor. We get it: Most humans are merely chum for the elites. Just as the joke is beginning to wear thin, Larraín expands this universe with a surprise cameo (consider it his take on “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man”) that gets a giggle plus a knowing nod of outrage. But while the filmmaker has the gall to caricature tyranny, he’s too cynical, or too honest, to wrap up “El Conde” with a satisfying resolution. Larraín has finally faced his monster — but he can’t bring himself to drive a stake through his heart.

El Conde
Rated R for ghastly spurts of black-and-white blood. In Spanish, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes. Watch on Netflix.


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