Monday, July 15, 2024

Movie Review (Venice Film Festival 2023): ‘El Conde’ Needs More Horror Bite

Director: Pablo Larraín
Writers: Guillermo Calderón and Pablo Larraín
Stars: Alfredo Castro, Catalina Guerra, Paula Luchsinger

Synopsis: Centers on Augusto Pinochet who is not dead but an aged vampire. After living 250 years in this world, he has decided to die once and for all.

Pablo Larraín reimagines Augusto Pinochet as a sullen 250-year-old vampire in the horror satire El Conde, which sounds like an intriguing premise that might lead to metaphorical riches. However, rather unfortunately, the film never uses its satirical and vampiric forces to its full potential, opting to use its premise as its main gateway rather than saying something new about the topic at hand. 

Chilean cinema has been on the rise recently, with names like Manuela Martelli, Maite Alberdi, Hugo Covarrubias, and Sebastián Lelio being notable and highly acclaimed. However, the one leading the pack is Pablo Larraín. Beginning his career and giving great first impressions by making dramatic political features that explored Chile’s government and life under harsh rule, Larraín made a big name for himself. He seems fascinated by history’s draining past and hopeful future, hence his recent focus on dream-like and nightmare-bound pictures centered around historical figures, such as Jackie and Spencer. However, Larraín is somewhat switching gears for his latest piece of work, El Conde, where he takes satire and horror into a pot and mixes them with his usual storytelling trademarks. While a couple of elements work exceptionally well on paper, its execution is less than the sum of its parts. 

With the satirical El Conde, Pablo Larraín seeks to play with what we know about two unforgivable figures in history; one of them is Augusto Pinochet, and the other is the person who guides us through this tale via narration, later to have an appearance that serves as a final (and unfunny) blow in the comedic strands of this film. The Chilean filmmaker doesn’t want to be realistic or even pinpoint accurate in its depictions. But instead, he wants to do so in its messaging and metaphors. Larraín reimagines the cruel and heartless dictator as a sullen 250-year-old vampire that, after decades roaming around the world and ruining everything he touches, wants to plunge himself into the final slumber. And, of course, the comparison between the aforementioned general and the blood-sucking beast is immediately recognizable as unduly “on the nose”. He feeds on the blood of the innocent to keep himself alive. Yet, it is absorbing enough to get us interested in this history play, at least on paper. 

The titular count (played by Jaime Vadell) wallows through his deserted housing, lamenting his immortality as a fanged creature. The estate is supposed to be his version of Dracula’s mansion in Transylvania. Still, the location is a grimy dump without any sense of life, contrasting with the beautiful black-and-white and shadow-centered cinematography by Edward Lachman. This showcases how the man has sold his soul to gain power and riches, ransacking everything he could for his benefit. However, a deal with the devil is a double-edged sword, hence why he now lives in isolation and grue, only having his occasional flights to the town as a form of escape – and even that depresses him even more because he sees that the country hasn’t “acknowledged” his “great” actions. Larraín sneaks in a cheeky, darkly comedic joke about the count going to the presidential palace to see if they have built a statue of him. 

After seeing him suffering and lying in his bed, you may think that the director might hint at adding some sympathy toward the count. But there’s no such care for this detestable and depraved man. What’s really at stake here is that Pinochet’s five children come to visit him after rumors that someone is stealing the hearts of young women across Chile. Things start to dwindle when they realize that their father’s loyal butler, Fyodor (Alfredo Castro), might be hiding some secrets of his own, as well as the inclusion of a young nun, Carmencita (Paula Luschsinger, who rocks facial resemblance and hairstyle to Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s in The Passion of Joan of Arc – with facial expressions and all), is seducing her father, when she was supposed to do an exorcism on him. This confrontation between father, kin, and associates turns into an even more satire-dependent episode of Succession, although without the nuisance and sharp witty writing the series has. 

It is a game of chess, none of them purposefully being in 3D because they fear what might happen if they cross the line; they just want a taste of that money and treasures that Pinochet has stored. Now, everything I have just described sounds like the concoction of polished and fascinating satire that has more bite than the fangs of its lead character. However, and rather unfortunately, the opposite happens. After seeing much of his work, I know that Larraín has the gift to provide a sharp story about similar topics, as he has done before in No (2012) and Neruda (2016). Because of his focus on the premise, instead of moving the story along, El Conde never reaches its vampiric and satirical possibilities. Saying that it is heavy on premise is an understatement; nothing much happens in the film, but there’s still an excessive amount of details being thrown at us both by Larraín’s visual language and the narration. 

Larraín wants to get out everything he can from that fundamental idea of having Pinochet as a loathing vampire that there’s not much room yet to add substance to this tale. Many metaphors and juxtapositions are tossed around from left to right, yet they arrive with zero subtlety or ambiguity; everything is entirely in your face. The biggest issue isn’t the lack of perspicacity in each topic and its central farcical gag. It is that this high-concept play on historical figures doesn’t have anything new to say about Pinochet and how life was in the country during his reign of terror, mainly when the feature-film debut of Manuela Martelli, Chile ‘76, released earlier this year – whose opening scene alone contains more depth that the first hour or so of El Conde

In addition, for Larraín’s first foray into horror, he needs much work to make the images and the atmosphere more gripping. He may deliver some shocking and provocative scenes that a satire should have. However, I don’t believe he nailed the essence and appeal of what makes films within that genre great. While everything looks splendid, what happens doesn’t have a more profound sensation of dread and angst that makes you want to be interested in the violence of stealing beating hearts or the satirical irony of its comedic quips. 

Grade: C

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