In this alternate reality, ruthless dictator Augusto Pinoche is an aged, bloodsucking vampire with death on his mind in Pablo Larrain’s latest satire.
Chilean filmmaking auteur Pablo Larrain has been politically charged throughout his career in cinema; first receiving attention when his film No about the political advertising campaign that unseated Augusto Pinochet from power in 1988, then through the films Jackie and Spencer, which were interesting character pieces about women suffocated by their own position of power driven by phenomenal performances from their respective lead actresses. Now Larrain has returned to his home country to co-write and direct El Conde, a twisted, dark and thought-provoking gothic horror satire about our world’s never-ending war against fascism.
El Conde reimagines dictator Augusto Pinochet as The Count (Jaime Vadell), a vampire who was born to unknown parents in Paris, only to eventually move to Chile in 1935 and stage a coup d’etat in 1973 before installing himself as President and General. During his ruthless tenure, he would make himself into a rich, invincible monster until he faked his death upon being cornered by authorities. In the modern day, he lives in seclusion with his resentful wife Lucia Hiriart (Gloria Munchmeyer), loyal Russian servant Fyodor Krassnoff (Alfredo Arturo Castro Gómez), and his five visiting adult children who just want to collect their inheritance.
This bequest is the reason for their presence because after 250 years, their patriarch has stopped feeding on the blood of innocents, and is ready to finally die. Death seems to arrive on his doorstep in the form of Carmencita (Paula Luchsinger Escobar), a young and beautiful Catholic nun enlisted by her monastery to exorcise the devil from Pinochet as a means of carrying out God’s work, according to her superiors. Will the fanaticism of The Count’s new visitor inspire him back into drinking the blood of his victims, or will Carmencita finally put Pinochet out of his misery once and for all, for the good of her church and Chileans at large?
Pablo Larrain’s boundless creativity is evident from the start of his latest film to its conclusion, and that starts with the satire’s visuals. El Conde is shot in gorgeous black and white photography that further emphasizes the horror of Pinochet as a person and political leader on hunts for innocent victims, but when he ominously thumps around his complex on his walker, the monochrome look makes all areas of his residence appear terrifying, like an instance where characters meander down to Pinochet’s secret stock of human hearts, or when The Count takes off to feed in apocalyptic exteriors, complete with barren earth and an unusually tall guillotine.
Larrain and his co-writer Guillermo Calderon also succeed with the sharp script of El Conde by incorporating gallows humor in a variety of methods amongst the grand but sinister atmosphere of the film. Some examples are visual like when Lucia uses a comically huge knife to open up pallets of soda, as well as a moment where Pinochet commands a marching band into his lavish abode to play an elaborate song for one final dance with his wife before death. Other jokes arrive verbally, as in the opening dinner party with his family when Pinochet admits he’s made mistakes. Unfortunately, just when a pause lingers long enough for audiences to wonder if he’ll admit his atrocities, he clarifies by saying he has only made “accounting mistakes.”
The ensemble cast also does a solid job of selling this dry humor with natural nonchalance; and while Vadell evokes The Count’s inner exhaustion and conflict with his facial expressions, it’s Escobar who steals the show through her uncanny resemblance to French actress Renee Falconetti. She broke through in The Passion of Joan of Arc in 1928, and like her, Carmencita goes through torture. Unlike her, however, it’s in the privileged and petty form of witnessing this family of selfish tyrants squabble amongst themselves. She humorously struggles to hide her inner torment while insisting she loves “seeing blatant envy and violence” with the happiest of smiles on her face despite the tears streaming down her face.
If there are any complaints to be had with El Conde, it’s that a lot of the death sequences are extremely graphic to the point where their violence and gore may turn off squeamish viewers, such as an early scene where a younger Pinochet caves a nurse’s face in with a sledgehammer. There are also pacing issues, particularly during an interrogation montage between Carmencita and Pinochet’s children that goes on for far too long, and an unreliable narrator that occasionally lays Larrain’s main ideas and a given character’s thought process on thick for casual audiences.That said, the voiceover is crucial to the story considering who it comes from, and when the narrator’s identity and relationship to Pinochet is revealed, El Conde twists into a biting and honest but bleak and pessimistic allegory about what molds an authoritarian and why it’s within history’s nature to repeat itself: so future generations continuing the fight against tyranny can comprehend how easily and quickly evil spawns and therefore keep it from spreading any further. Viewers will feel unease for Carmen as the strings of the score screech when she purifies her room with holy water, be unsure whether to laugh at the warped absurdity of Pinochet running human hearts through a blender, and want to see the film again to further examine Larrain’s creative perspective once the credits roll. It’s not an easy watch, but a unique one, and that’s why adventurous audiences should see El Conde.