EL CONDE – Review by Diane Carson

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El Conde presents Chilean dictator, among others, as a vampire.

Director Pablo Larraín consistently and scathingly dramatizes the politics of his native country Chile. In Neruda, El Club, and NO, Larraín explicitly critiques the corrupt, ruthless dictator General Augusto Pinochet. During Pinochet’s regime from 1973 to 1990 thousands of citizens disappeared, endured brutal torture, and were murdered in heinous ways.

Now, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of Pinochet’s coup d’état against Allende, Larraín’s El Conde again targets Pinochet. However, Larraín has departed from realistic storytelling, creating a grisly, at times even repulsive, presentation of Pinochet as a jaded vampire in his late eighties. He and his enablers retrieve fresh hearts from victims, put them in blenders, and feast on ugly smoothies. Legendary cinematographer Ed Lachman captures all this in rich, deep black-and-white, the only buffer against our aversion to these loathsome individuals.

Of course, that is exactly the point regarding such sociopathic, power hungry rulers. Expanding on this, the story stretches back two hundred fifty years to Napoleon, Marie Antoinette (via her head and a guillotine), and, in a stunning move, voiceover narration by Margaret Thatcher who humorously appears. In subplots, Pinochet’s five greedy, loveless children scheme to gain control of his assets, a nun is dispatched to perform an exorcism, pedophile Catholic priests appear, the butler gleefully shares a taste for the macabre, and Pinochet’s wife longs to join this bloodsucking world.

In a Q&A session at this year’s Telluride Film Festival, Larraín spoke of the current need to address the past as it continues to express itself in the far right, saying, “Any empathy is dangerous.” Cinematographer Lachman added that he looked at cinema such as Nosferatu and Vampyr, even using old lenses to visualize that world. He also ensured that light did not strike the characters’ eyes since they are, in his words, “hiding from themselves and each other,” participants in brutal, inequitable capitalism.

Noting other influences, Larraín cited pop elements such as Batman, Superman, and photos from the forties and fifties, pushing the absurdity for humorous relief. Larraín observed that some people are capable of monstrosity, and “hope comes only from awareness.” For those who dare, with several stomach-churning moments, El Conde streams now on Netflix.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.