For a power-hungry politician that feeds on the blood of his people to be reimagined as a vampire is admittedly on-the-nose. But that’s what Chilean director Pablo Larraín does in his latest film, the unsparing black comedy-horror El Conde, an alt-history schlock-fest that presents a world in which the dictator Augusto Pinochet lurks as a 250-year-old vampire.
Having faked his death and retreated to the countryside with his curmudgeonly wife, Pinochet exists on a healthy diet of blood smoothies and nighttime jaunts across the cityscape. We’re introduced to him as a young man in 18th century France, who deserts his king after the revolution, but not before he is able to lick the blood off the guillotine that severed Marie Antoinette’s head, which, by the way, he steals from her crypt. After (literally) going underground for some years, Pinochet flees to Chile, described wryly by the film’s narrator as ‘the land of fatherless peasants’. The same narrator, whose identity the movie reveals with a great flourish near the end, also describes Pinochet himself as ‘a pimp in the hide of a banana republic mafioso’.
Laugh-out-loud lines such as these wouldn’t seem like an organic fit with the sort of palette that Larraín is going for. Always the visionary — Larraín has often experiment with aspect ratios and formats — the filmmaker has designed El Conde almost as if it were Universal horror picture directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. The shadow of Pinochet looms large over his filmography, and for him to continue examining the ripple-effects of his fascist rule sort of ties into the film’s themes of monstrosity, and the human tendency to be awed by it.
His version of Pinochet is neither a doddering old fool or a cartoon like Jojo Rabbit’s Hitler. He is, instead, a wily demon who cannot be exorcised from his nation’s soul even if the Catholic Church makes this its priority. This, by the way, forms a subplot in the movie, which also involves a nun named Sister Carmen. She shows up at Pinochet’s ranch as an accountant, because after more than two centuries of unspeakable crimes against humanity, he has decided that he has had enough, and that he should begin putting his affairs in order. Carmen’s duty isn’t merely to secretly perform an exorcism on Pinochet, but to also interview his five adult children about where the riches that their father stole from his country, the same riches that they are hungry to inherit, are hidden.
In these scenes, which make up most of the film’s second act, El Conde, against all expectations, turns into Knives Out — a sharp satire of inherited wealth and the banality of evil. The second act is also where the movie allows itself to embrace a broader comedic tone. Because otherwise, Larraín clearly seems to be quite satisfied with the idea that he has come up with. Instantly engaging as it is, it’s still just an idea, and after a point, El Conde starts floundering like a bat out of hell. But a deep desire to subvert pushes Larraín down a couple of unexpected narrative paths. Carmen’s eventual role in the story, for instance, is rather surprising — it’s the sort of moment that makes you lean in for a closer look — although the scene in which El Conde reveals the narrator’s identity isn’t quite the ta-da moment that it thinks it is.
The effects of dictatorial regimes linger long after the dictators themselves have either passed or been erased from history, the movie says. The trauma that Larraín’s generation inherited from the Pinochet years, the trauma that he repeatedly returns to confront through his movies, is a rather sobering reminder for what’s in store for us here, in India. El Conde’s mere existence is proof of what director Anurag Kashyap said recently about the best Holocaust films being made after the Holocaust, not during it.
Director – Pablo Larraín
Cast – Jaime Vadell, Gloria Münchmeyer, Paula Luchsinger
Rating – 4/5