Saturday, September 16, 2023


Pablo Larrain returns to our screens after the histrionic and only partly successful Princess Diana biopic SPENCER with his mordantly black political satire about the Chilean director Augusto Pinochet, EL CONDE. Larrain has often covered the long shadow of Pinochet's brutal military dictatorship, not least in his brilliantly political comedy NO. But this film is darker, nastier and more challenging, if something of a one-trick pony. The big concept of this film is that Pinochet is reimagined as a vampire who first stirred up shit in the French revolution, before seizing power in a military coup in Chile, fifty years ago.  In Larrain's hilarious fantasy, Pinochet faked his own death in the mid 2010s, but now wants to actually die, leaving his avaricious wife and children with a logistical and financial issue.  So they bring in an accountant slash nun to both exorcise Pinochet so that he can be killed, but also to track down his hidden fortune. 

The question this film raises is where evil resides. Can it be isolated to Satan? To a single power- (and blood-) hungry general? To the soldiers that carried out his terror? To the businessmen and family members that grew rich in his regime? To the Catholic Church rich on ill-gotten donations? To the foreign political powers who supported his coups?  To the country, England, that had benefited from his military intelligence in the Falklands war?

As an ardent Thatcherite I might object at Stella Gonet's portrayal of Thatcher as a fellow blood-sucking political player, but that would to ludicrously miss the point. Thatcher DID admire Pinochet's fight against Communism and acknowledge Chile's help in the war. That realpolitik may not sit well with the British public but it's a truth we have to reckon with, just as Chile has to reckon with Pinochet's legacy in their own country.  The film uses provocative dark humour to rightly leave us all uncomfortable at our own complicity.

So kudos to Larrain and writer Guillermo Calderon for creating a deeply unsafe but also hilarious vampire movie, as provocative in its depiction of vampires and religion as Park Chan Wook's THIRST. But also a film that at root is a fucked-up five-person love story - the sexual and financial jealousy runs deep between Marie-Antoinette, Margaret Thatcher, Pinochet, his wife and his valet. Yep.  That's the kind of film this is.

Elsewhere, praise for cinematographer Ed Lachman (CAROL) for his stunning black and white photography, and to the actors Jaime Vadell (Pinochet), Paula Luchsinger (the nun), Gloria Muenchmeyer (Pinochet's wife) and a scene-stealing turn by Alfredo Castro as the valet.

EL CONDE has a running time of 110 minutes and is rated R. It played Venice and Telluride 2023, went on limited cinematic release last week, and is on Netflix this week.

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