Movie Review
El Conde
Directed by Pablo Larrain

I REMEMBER mentioning a notable name in the Filipino film industry to one of our better filmmakers, who declared him “an impakto” — Tagalog for “bloodsucker.”

I looked at him. “Really? How about—” and mentioned someone else. “Another impakto.” “And—?” “Yet another impakto!” I tossed off several more names and all he could say was “impakto, the lot of them.”

Which conversation I remember while watching Pablo Larrain’s latest feature, a rather obvious high concept horror comedy that answers the question: What if Augusto Pinochet was a vampire? Not a political or metaphoric monster draining Chile of its economic prosperity but a literal supernatural leech?

It starts off intriguingly enough: Pinochet (longtime Larrain collaborator Jaime Vadell) has faked his death and is living in an isolated farm (actually an abandoned sheep ranch in Patagonia). Stories of folk found with their hearts cut out have been circulating lately, and Pinochet’s children are alarmed: their father is attracting attention, and besides he’s lived far too long  — time for him to move on and allow them their chance to enjoy his hidden wealth. So, as all good children of wealthy families tend to do, his progeny make a pilgrimage to the patriarch’s home hoping to see some of that wealth, hiring along the way a nun named Carmen (Paula Luchsinger), overtly to audit the money (he claims he’s forgotten where he hid it), covertly to employ her case of vampire-killing accessories — wood stake and mallet and all — to kill the old man.

The premise is rich with possibilities, and I suppose Larrain can’t be faulted for not exploiting all of them. This is labeled a horror film but its moments of true horror lie not in the sight of pulsing hearts freshly torn from chests but in the interviews Carmen conducts with the various family members including El Conde (“The Count,” as Pinochet insists on calling himself, possibly a reference to Bram Stoker’s novel) — many of the details seem to have been taken from historical accounts, and are all the more chilling for being so casually mentioned.

But the film isn’t concerned with the former regime’s atrocities so much as it is with the legacy they represent: the real Pinochet escaped accountability by dying (some 300 cases remain pending); Larrain adds insult to injury by supposing Pinochet staged his demise and is living in relative comfort, though the director does complicate matters by suggesting that: 1.) the former president isn’t happy with his present reputation in history books, and, 2.) he’s so tired of life he wants to die.

I’d liked to have seen more of the kids — their father may not have converted them, but they seem vampiric all the same, gathered round their pater like vultures round a dying ox, and I’d welcome more scenes of them squabbling over which bit of flesh would be tastiest and who gets to sample first. I would love to learn more about Pinochet’s wife Lucia (Gloria Munchmeyer), who’s tired of her husband (apparently the feeling is mutual) and is having an affair with loyal butler and former top butcher Fyodor (Alfredo Castro) — longtime enablers who now feel some kind of way about their traditional roles. The film is a trim 110 minutes but another 10 or 20 adding extra detail to the characters and their difficult relationship with the old man might have uncovered a few more comic nuggets.

I’d even like to learn more about El Conde and Carmen’s spiraling pas de deux — the attraction is understandable (Luchsinger is a striking presence) but beyond the flirting and lingering looks what do they think and feel about each other? Especially when they get to better know each other? Certainly wordless imagery is best but some dialogue — a small handful even, to suggest the interplay of minds — would have been appreciated.

Some more hiccups — I kept getting thrown by the sight of a human heart in a blender; one pound of tough fibrous muscle won’t just turn into protein shake at the touch of a button, you have to chop it up first. That, or show the blender’s container juddering as if undergoing a seizure, with plenty of poking down the sticky results with a spatula — the fail is minor but disturbing and suggests Larrain hasn’t thought all the physical details through.

And Carmen’s interviews — some of her comments are so blatantly sarcastic you wonder if she isn’t trying to provoke them to attack her. I understand dictators and their people can sometimes be either unaware or willfully tone deaf to the morality of their actions but there’s deaf and there’s downright dense — I kept expecting the family to throw Carmen out of the house for her effrontery.

(Some partial spoilers ahead. — Ed.)

I did in the end enjoy the film, mainly for the moody visual texture. Edward Lachman’s cinematography captures the wild desolation of Patagonia, and the black and white imagery helps sell the eerie special effects: of Pinochet in his familiar cape rising to the air like a more malevolent superman, of said figure gliding amongst the buildings of Santiago seeking prey. Later in the film when a character is finally converted, their fumbling first attempts at flying are captured, legs cycling over corrugated roofs and grasslands and wetlands, at one point arms joyously outstretched as they fling themselves into a flat spin over rocky terrain and strings strum thrillingly in the background. It’s the film’s high point, though, unfortunately, it also upstages much of what comes after, including a belated plot twist linking the film’s narrator to the narrative and tying conservatism to fascism as the latter’s more palatable face (and while I would have liked more words exchanged between the film’s two chief lovers, I’d have preferred less exposition from this late-entry character).

Might as well note that the final form of Pinochet’s secreted wealth comes as an uncomfortable surprise, a reminder of Anthony Burgess’ warning in A Clockwork Orange, that appreciation of the finer things in life — of music, art, literature — doesn’t guarantee an appreciation of the finer nuances in morality (though one wonder’s at the true value of some of the items — would a first edition of Mein Kampf fetch that much money?)

Might also note that one of Pinochet’s sons by way of excuse points out Ferdinand Marcos as being a far bigger thief, having stolen $30 billion to the Chilean strongman’s measly $30 million, and once more the Philippines distinguishes itself on the world stage, though not in a manner that would allow it to hold its head very high.


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