One would think a film centring on a man’s (Raúl) obsession with impersonating Tony Manero (John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever) and his quest to win a national look-a-like contest would contain a large amount of humour. Instead, Tony Manero is a bleak, raw depiction of the subordination of culture. This is not to say the film isn’t funny – for it is – but to label the humour as ‘darkly comic’ is somewhat missing the point. As the film nears its climax, there is a lonely shot of six desperate Tony Maneros dancing backstage. One’s laughter here stems from the sheer nakedness of what is on screen – an almost obsessive embrace of American culture; the desensitisation of humanity – this is 1970’s Chile.
A better way to explain this awkward laughter is to compare it to a drunken, homeless man who lives on my way to work. In one instance of my daily travels, he stood across the road and dropped his pants for me. My initial reaction was laughter, but when one stops to ask ‘How did this man become like this?’, one forced to recognise a life riddled with pain, possible addiction, and loss. This is exactly the social climate Tony Manero portrays through its characters’ actions.
The film is peppered with tiny moments detailing Raúl’s girlfriend’s daughter and her boyfriend’s escapades for an underground newspaper community against the Chilean dictator (General Pinochet). The most revealing and telling of these moments are presented with actual, full body nudity. One night, the daughter returns home soaked from a burst water main. She explains how it is dangerously flooding the streets. Her mother helps her out of the wet clothes, but when the daughter displays anger towards their government for not doing anything to help the matter (no emergency services had gone to the burst main) her mother slaps her and walks away in disgust. By this point, she is completely naked and being watched by Raúl from a distance. She turns to face him full. To visibly lay bare one’s body becomes symbolic of providing a real insight into society at that time.
Graphic nudity is only rivalled by the extreme violence. Raúl appears to be psychotic – his violence provoked by the most trivial of things. One instance has him go to his local cinema (where he regularly watches Saturday Night Fever) only to be confronted with John Travolta’s new export, Grease. After watching a few seconds, he walks out of the screen and up into the projection room. Here, he viciously murders the elderly projector and his wife by viscerally smashing their heads against a wall. He leaves with a Saturday Night Fever film reel under his arm.
Despite detailing other characters so intimately, Tony Manero is entirely focused upon Raúl. There is not a shot without him in it, and a large percentage often involve close ups to extreme close ups of him. Initially, it is difficult to relate to such a monstrous, volatile man, but the film forces one to do so. You are manipulated to see the world through his eyes, to become frustrated with the people he so mercilessly kills, a Catcher in the Rye of sorts. Tony Manero is an extraordinary film, a sincere microcosm of 1970’s Chile exhibited in one man.