Film / Tony Manero

"In the movie, John Travolta plays 'Tony Manero'. We're searching now for the Chilean Tony Manero. Follow me, little camera."

Tony Manero is a 2008 drama film by Pablo Larraín that uses the classic 1977 movie Saturday Night Fever as a springboard for a new story. Filmed and set in Chile, it centers around a callous criminal named Raúl Peralta (played by Alfredo Castro) who becomes obsessed with the U.S. film's portrayal of disco culture and specifically the role of "Tony Manero" that John Travolta peformed. A dark, cynical look at The '70s in that nation, during which Chilean life was rocked by Augusto Pinochet's brutal dictatorship, the Spanish language movie follows Peralta's growing obsession and eventual opportunity to live out his dreams by performing on a Saturday Night Fever themed impersonation contest on national TV.

Featuring a thieving, murderous Villain Protagonist (The New York Times called the movie an "indelible portrait of a sociopath with the soul of a zombie"), Tony Manero has picked up critical praise but is still an odd bird to say the least. Compared to the iconic disco film, it functions as a Spiritual Sequel, as a fascinating parallel narrative touching on the same themes, as a dark deconstruction (somewhat ironic, given the downbeat background of the first film, making Tony Manero a deconstruction of a deconstruction), and as an unrelated character study of life in a decrepit Police State.

The film provides examples of:

  • Ambiguous Disorder: Played for Drama. The protagonist has a knack for saying nothing when he could easily calm things down with the right words, flying off the handle at minor provocations, and all around treating other people (even those that he has a significant connection to) as nothing but a means to an end. As stated above, a writer from The New York Times thought that it was as if Raúl had no soul.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Raúl gets asked point-blank what he's going to do when this trendy disco "fashion" dies. He weakly retorts that it's more than that, but the question clearly needles him, sticking in his mind. This uncertainty dogs him up to and including the film's final scene, when he's sitting in a bus having lost the fateful contest in a "Now what?" stupor.
  • Badass in a Nice Suit: To be expected given the scenario.
  • Book Burning: Truth in Television. The Chilean dictatorship does not tolerate freedom of expression, and Raúl's dancing associate Goyo treads on dangerous ground due to his involvement with anti-government pamphleteers.
  • Crapsack World: To be sadly expected under a South American military-run tyranny. Throughout the movie's background, it becomes clear that the system itself creates cruel jerkasses such as Raúl given how terrible personality traits such as deceit and callousness are rewarded. The decaying buildings, dirty streets, wandering dogs, and all the rest give off a negative aura of despair.
  • Dancing Is Serious Business: This applies just as much as the original Saturday Night Fever.
  • Darker and Edgier: Everything happy, funny, upbeat, etc about the above film is toned way down or entirely absent in this mutated quasi-sequel.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Raúl has shades of this. Other characters have their moments a well.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: A nice old lady has a color television set that Raúl is interested in, watching it after bugging him with racist comments. A merchant at a big junkyard-esque place raised the price of glass floor tiles that Raúl longs for. A film projectionist has stopped showing the movie that Raúl is totally obsessed with. Guess what happens to them.
    • In the broader sense, this is how Pinochet's oppressive tyranny operates, being a typical example of a Police State.
  • Dissonant Serenity: One of Raúl's defining character traits.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The protagonist shows up, feeling confused, to a backstage area ready for the big Saturday Night Fever related event. Heading inside only gets him shooed back outside among a group of men dressed nothing like disco enthusiasts. He then learns that it's a Chuck Norris impersonation contest that's about to start, and his event won't happen until the following week. He does have time to do the formal paperwork, though, ahead of time. Yet his answers to questions about his age, residence, and occupation are cagey and hesitant. Not only is Raúl left looking stupid, but his anxiety about being a middle-aged low-life is made crystal clear.
  • Fan Disservice: Raúl imitates scenes of a mugging Travolta. For a character that's unattractive inside and out, especially when this is juxtaposed with him committing heinous crimes, the moments are... unsettling.
  • Gratuitous English: Justified. Multiple Chileans are fascinated by U.S. culture, and trying to memorize bits of an internationally popular film is reasonable enough. The protagonist, though, gets obsessive about it, seeing the movie over and over again.
  • Gray and Black Morality: And how. The protagonist is an oddly serene yet totally depraved criminal. He spends his time in places that almost always look decaying and rotten. The various side characters fall on varying scales of obnoxiousness with none being that overly sympathetic (or even given that much of a focus, anyways). Obsessing over fictional glitz makes sense given how cynically awful their world is.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: Augusto Pinochet's reach is far, even if the man himself is only brought up briefly.
  • Fascists' Bed Time: Truth in Television. The Chilean government has a strict curfew.
  • Jerkass: Raúl. Side characters have shades of this as well.
  • Improvised Weapon: Raúl. This enhances the uncaring brutality of his killings.
  • Longing Look: The protagonist's expressions are an odd mixture of disturbing callous and sympathetically pathetic, particularly when he gazes at the Saturday Night Fever characters up on the movie screen.
  • Longing for Fictionland: The focus of the film.
  • Pet The Cat: A literal case. Raúl takes the time to gently move around a housecat and put out a nice meal for it... after a sudden, horrible murder.
  • Police Brutality / Police State: Straight historical example.
  • Reality Ensues: Gee, Raúl, you may be a solid dancer, but you're competing against men that are just as talented as you are while also being better looking and younger. Why are you surprised that you didn't win?
  • Scenery Gorn: The working-class areas of 70s Chile look truly terrible, and minor moments in more middle-class type environments prove to emphasize that.
  • The Sociopath: The protagonist is just a few steps above sinking to that level. Assuming that he's not there already. He displays hints of fear, shame, and worry, yes, but that doesn't change how he's a cold-blooded murderer at heart.
  • Villain Protagonist: And how. Raúl Peralta would give freaking Frank Underwood a run for his money.