On one of its most glorious front pages, on November 26, 1998, the French daily Libération devoted its entire cover to the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was then being held in London after a private trip. It was the day he had been notified that his diplomatic immunity had been rejected and that he could therefore be prosecuted. By chance, this coincided with his 83rd birthday, and over one of his best-known portraits — in black and white, with a blank stare, sporting the stripes of his macabre military uniform — Libération spewed a sarcastic “Happy Birthday!”
Pinochet was always an icon of death, as if there were a quality in him that was more grotesque and frightening than that of so many dictators. Something, if you will, supernatural... That’s where Pablo Larraín’s idea of turning him into a 250-year-old vampire is so brilliant. Indeed, there has always been something in him that connects with the darkest and cruelest folklore.
The premiere of El Conde (or, The Count) coincides with the 50th anniversary of the coup against Chilean President Salvador Allende’s leftist government and its script — written with Guillermo Calderón — was awarded at the Venice Film Festival. It is, however, a film incapable of going beyond its novel premise despite fantastic black and white photography by Ed Lachman, a regular collaborator, among others, of Todd Haynes; some of El Conde’s locations and sets are also admirable the movie features some wonderful imagery such as an exorcist nun dancing in the sky, a moment of rapturous beauty but anecdotal in a muddled film, whose appeal is deflated by being unable to offer something beyond its witty gambit.
The figure of Pinochet and his military junta, and the consequences of a coup that, in addition to imposing its social and economic model with blood, stole from his country hand over fist - another form of vampirism - has always hovered over the work of Larraín, a director who has always liked to delve into history via intriguing portraits: Jackie (2016), about Jacqueline Kennedy, and Spencer (2021), about Princess Diana, are two examples. Within that masked ball, El Conde allows him to compose a bloody satire on power and its miseries, including those of the family, through a narrator whose disdainful English accent and iron-fisted recipes announce an Olympus of bloodsuckers conceived by Larraín as immortal predators.
The always intelligent and reckless Chilean director, capable of making films as uncomfortable and fascinating as The Club (2015) or the wonderful Ema (2019), fails to land the heavy tonnage that El Conde promises. Once we’ve seen Pinochet fly like Batman and drink blood, what’s left is only a stamp whose x-ray of a sinister legacy proves far less incisive than that of a film like No (2013), which closed the dictatorship trilogy formed by Tony Manero (2008) and Post Mortem (2010), and in which the dictator’s ubiquitous shadow appeared in the form of a documentary archive: A TV commercial, smiling at the screen while the consequences of his ultra-liberal propaganda (“I want owners, not proletarians”) were captured in a deeper and more scathing way.
Director: Pablo Larraín.
Starring: Jaime Vadell, Gloria Münchmeyer, Alfredo Castro, Paula Luchsinger, Antonia Zegers.
Genre: Black comedy horror. Chile, 2023.
Duration: 110 minutes.