EL CONDE – Review by Nadine Whitney

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Chilean director Pablo Larraín adds a particularly dark and absurd entry to his films influenced by the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. While No is his lightest effort and Post Mortem his bleakest, El Conde is his most absurd. Using the premise that Pinochet is a two hundred-and fifty-year old vampire born in France in 1766 and obsessed with Marie Antoinette, August Pinochet gradually became the dictator of a “country without a king” after fighting in any war that put down the proletariat.

A voice informs the audience that Pinochet (Larraín stalwart Jaime Vadell) has tasted blood from all over the world, but he prefers the nobility of English blood – that voice is instantly recognisable from intonation and accent. Larraín has revealed in interviews who it belongs to, but to reveal it would spoil a well-earned and vicious payoff. Pinochet is tired; he is tired of living in world that refuses to acknowledge his accomplishments, a world that thinks him a mass murderer and worse, a thief. Refusing to turn his wife Lucía (Gloria Münchmeyer) into a vampire and soul sick, Pinochet refuses blood and sits brooding in his bunker-like farm in the south.

News of his impending death brings his vulture like children Manuel (Diego Muñóz), Luciana (Catalina Guerra), Mercedes (Amparo Noguera) and Aníbal (Marcial Tagle) to the desolate island to claim their inheritance. In the hopes of finding his fortune and perhaps exorcising the devil from his non-existent soul the eldest daughter employs a young Nun, Carmencita (Paula Luchsinger) to go over the family holdings.

Rarely has a film loathed every character and institution in it as much as Larraín and co-writer Guillermo Calderón’s creation. From the White Russian Renfield styled character, Fyodor (Alfredo Castro) to the grasping Catholic church who want to ensure that any bonds of value go to them, to the US government and their tacit involvement in Pinochet’s 1973 coup. The spectre of Pinochet hangs over Chile as a literal figure of the undead – an evil that can never be vanquished.

Stunningly filmed in black and white by Edward Lachman, El Conde has a luminous beauty that highlights the grotesquery of the characters. Paula Luchsinger is shot to resemble a young Isabella Rossellini or Maria Falconetti in Dreyer’s La passion de Jeanne d’Arc as she encourages the venal siblings to casually reveal their multitudinous crimes and seduces Pinochet by ensuring she doesn’t think him a thief, rather a man who “used your powers to enrich yourself, that’s different.” The Count flies to Santiago to drink the blood of people (not a subtle metaphor) and make smoothies out of their hearts. The sheer gorgeousness of Lachman’s work – balletic at times, renders the gory horror more affecting and adds to the dark satire of the film.

Despite Larraín using surrealist techniques in his mordant satire he doesn’t skimp on referencing the atrocities committed by Pinochet and his military junta. The Desaparecidos, the Caravan of Death, and the sanctioned torture that took place in the Villa Grimaldi appear in wicked conversations between Pinochet and his chief torturer, now butler and vampire, Fyodor. Lucía suggests they have more to do, more to conquer. Pinochet himself after falling in love with Carmencita thinks perhaps he can achieve more – bring down the International Court in The Hague. The list of atrocities is near unending and the whole family want it them to be viewed as some manner of divine justice.

When Pinochet, the real Pinochet, died in 2006 he avoided any official sentencing for his crimes robbing the Chilean people of any catharsis and palpable justice. Larraín’s farce is razor sharp. When evil escapes consequences it continues in a never-ending cycle. “His life work was to turn us into heroes of greed” the narrator’s voice tells the audience. Despite the laugh-out-loud moments including a young Pinoche licking Marie Antoinette’s blood from the guillotine, The Count falling from his walking frame when trying to seduce Carmencita, and young fascists saluting over his coffin (missing the fact he’s blinking in it) Larraín never lets the audience forget that Chile suffered and is still suffering from a man who metaphorically ate their hearts but literally crushed their souls.

El Conde is a triumph of absurdism and a political satire that is never toothless and proves that despite his success with international productions, Larraín’s best work is when he turns his lens on his homeland.

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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney is a seasoned film critic and scholar. Based in Melbourne, Australia, Nadine contributes regularly to FILMINK, The Curb, and Mr Movies Film Blog. She holds a degree in cinema theory and cultural studies. Her specialty is surrealism in cinema. She is as passionate about cats as she is about film. She is co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association and a member of FIPRESCI.