Murder on the Dancefloor

Tony Manero
Tony Manero is a dark insight into the mind of a psychopath obsessed with John Travolta’s character from Saturday Night Fever. Steven Galvin talks to Alfredo Castro, star of the multi award-winning film.

Steven Galvin: Alfredo. First of all, it was a fantastic performance.

Alfredo Castro: Thank you very much.

And I have to say, sitting in front of you here, that you have completely different eyes to the ones I saw in the film…

I hope so!

Because in the film they’re so dark. There’s a deadness behind the eyes that comes across so powerfully in your performance. Could you tell me something about your character Raúl – how you came to play him and what was it like?

Well, we didn’t rehearse at all; we just went straight into shooting the film. And I had worked on the script for a year. And then Pablo Larrain (the director) took the script and worked on it. We reached a plateau where we knew nothing about the character – no judgment about him. Just him as a result of the violence and the dictatorship he lived under at that moment – in Chile, under Pinochet. The main thing for me was to represent the impunity from death – that he can murder or kill anybody to get what he wants

And when you connect it to the political environment of that time are you saying that Raúl is a product of that society?

Absolutely, yes. Yes, he’s an animal. He’s illiterate. And he just wants to dance. And all the pollution he feels he it drops off him when he is dancing or having sort of sex – bad sex!

The dancing is his only expression of potency in so much as the sex is such a failure for him.

Yes. That’s it. Failure. The man is a failure.

Yet strange as it may seem – he is a failure, a man without morals who commits acts of violence – the viewer is quite drawn to him. You don’t hate him.

No, I don’t.

And at the end of the film, you find yourself rooting for him.

Yes – but you feel guilty…

Was that a conscious decision by yourself and Pablo? That in some way the audience feels a sense of compassion for Raúl?

Yes. We don’t agree with this new idea of the anti-hero. He is in some way a hero – for himself. But I have no moral or ethical judgement about him. I just did it. It was very hard. It was six weeks of shooting. I felt a lot of sympathy for him – pity. He’s a poor, poor man.

So the fact that he had come to that point in his life – where he had achieved nothing. Coming from a poor, uneducated background, working class…

He’s not really a working class man. He’s sort of an outsider without a class. At that moment there were two classes – those that supported Pinochet and those that didn’t. But there was another social class – outsiders. They didn’t support Pinochet nor were they against him. He’s an outsider, just trying to survive. I’m sure he’s not of a social class. But he’s living in a time of violence.

When you talk about the political background to the film, it’s interwoven into the script and yet it’s not a major part of the film. It’s not thrust in your face.

No, not at all. That was just the environment – the atmosphere of terror. At that time it was like that.

You said earlier that you worked on the script before giving it to Pablo. How did the idea come about? And could you tell me about the relationship between the two of you and the development of the script?

We had finished another movie together. It was a failure. That was Pablo’s first film. There was in that film 20 minutes where I play a gay guy who was in a psychiatric hospital. And he helped the protagonist to get out of that hell. Pablo and I got on very well and developed a friendship.

This was the first time you’d worked with Pablo.

Yes. That was the first time I did a film. I never acted in a film before in my entire life. I am a man of theatre. I have worked for thirteen years in theatre. But I had never been in film. That was my first time. Afterwards, I received a call from Pablo and he told me he saw a picture, a photograph in a book and that he would like me to see it. I went to his home and I saw the picture and I wanted to tell the story of the man in the picture. He was an American serial killer, who was sitting in a sofa in his underwear with a gun in his hand, hanging by his side as he looked out the window. It was series of photos. There was another picture with the same man with a woman giving him a blowjob and the man was still looking out the window – not sexy, no excitement at all. So we started there with the photo. And then he wrote the script with another guy, Mateo Iribarren – a very good writer – and then I worked on the dramaturgy. I didn’t write any words. Just focused on ideas and what happens, when and why. By the end we had a huge script, which Pablo then reduced to fifty or sixty pages telling the story of three days in the life of a man. Then Pablo made the link with Tony Manero because the film was released at the time the script was set in – 1977.

When Raúl tries to live out this cultural ‘American Dream’, why do you think he chose Tony Manero?

Well Saturday Night Fever was released in 1977. At that time we had tough censorship. So only American films came in – films which were meant to stop people thinking about what was going on. ’77/’78 were the worst years of the dictatorship. Many people were killed. They were the worst years of the dictatorship. Everybody was dancing disco and trying to be Tony Manero/John Travolta, whatever.  So that’s why Pablo made the link in this film.

I took the script as a kind of Greek tragedy. When the film starts, it is with failure. A man around his fifties trying to be Tony Manero, trying to live the ‘American Dream’ – but of course, it’s not going to work at all.

The scene in the dance club when the police come in to make arrests and Raúl hides: it demonstrates publicly that he’s a coward. Not being able to stand up and act for others. But instead he follows his personal desire and slips out to get to the contest. For him nothing else matters.

No. Not even love. He loves nobody. He’s a psychopath. There’s no the ‘other’ for him. The other doesn’t exist. It’s just ‘yourself’, and your dreams and your goals and you go for that. No feelings for the other. No compromise at all.

In fact, when you say no feelings for others – the only time we do see him express any sort of feelings is when he’s alone. When he’s lying on the dance floor he’s built and when he’s dancing alone in his bedroom.

Yes, all for himself. For nobody else.

There’s a particular scene that puts a new twist on the stories of ballerinas putting glass into their rivals’ shoes in order to win…

Yes. I shit on the suit! Well, y’know, in Chile, the thieves when they break into houses they always shit everywhere. They leave their mark. This is my territory. We tried to find other ways of doing that scene – with a knife, burning the suit… But we did it that way. Pablo said to me, ‘I think this guy would shit on the suit.’ So when we were shooting that day, it was planned before. There was one hour of discussion and arguments. I decided to go and do it and prepare the shit!

It’s a scene that does shock the audience. It’s one of those scenes that, even if you know it’s coming, you’re not prepared.

Yes, you don’t want to see it.

There was little dialogue in the film…

Yes. It was the idea of Pablo. This man, at the beginning, when we started the script, he talks a lot. A lot of chatting with all the people. But at the end, Pablo decided that this man would have few words – just seeing and looking and watching everybody.

Pablo uses a lot of close-ups letting the face of Raúl say more than words can.

The camera was always around me. Very near my face. It was like another eye for myself.

You were saying that your background is in theatre, so how did this experience in front of a camera compare?

I prefer the people sitting in front of me. I had to incorporate the camera into myself. I thought to myself for the five or six weeks that it was really my sight – another eye of myself, I was watching everything. In this case the camera operated for me as a witness. It was very scary.

I hope not so scary that you won’t do it again!

No! Of course not.

Thank you. A pleasure talking with you.

Thank you.

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Tony Manero

Tony Manero

DIR: Pablo Larrain • WRI: Alfredo Castro, Mateo Iribarren, Pablo Larrain • PRO: Juan de Dios Larraín • DOP: Sergio Armstrong • ED: Andrea Chignoli • DES: Polin Garbizu • CAST: Alfredo Castro, Amparo Noguera, Paola Lattus, Héctor Morales, Elsa Poblete

A man in his fifties is obsessed with Tony Manero – John Travolta’s strutting, extended-arm disco shuffler from Saturday Night Fever. He enters a TV contest in the hope to be the best Tony Manero impersonator and win a blender for his efforts. Sounds a laugh-a-minute romp. Well it isn’t. Because this particular mimic is a psychopathic killer, whose acts of violence and impotent attempts at seducing his girlfriend’s daughter are set against the backdrop of Pinochet’s reign of terror in Chile. And he defecates on other people’s clothes – of course.

Directed by Pablo Larrain, the film focuses on a few days in the life of Raúl Peralta (an understated yet ferocious performance from Alfredo Castro, who had a hand in the screenplay along with Larrain and fellow writer, Mateo Ibibarren). Raúl heads a dance troupe in his local cantina performing laboured sequences from Saturday Night Fever – the Riverdance of the late seventies. For Raúl though, it’s much more than the dance. Sitting alone in his local cinema day after day, he repeats lines from his beloved film. In essence, Raúl’s obsession drives his psychopathic need to escape his everyday life and take on the new heroic identity that Travolta’s Manero seems to provide. All the trappings of Manero’s world are sought by Raúl – to such an extent that not only does he don that suit, but also builds his own dancefloor based on the one Travolta struts across. In order to achieve this, Raúl resorts to horrific acts of violence to get what he wants.

Here we have the ‘killer on the dancefloor’ incarnate. Certain scenes are uncomfortable to watch and others produce nervous laughter and groans – when Raúl finds out his local cinema that has been showing Saturday Night Fever for so long has replaced it with Grease, it doesn’t take him long to bludgeon the cinema attendant who sold him his ticket. There are obvious links between Raúl’s actions and those of the dictatorial regime in place at that time in Chile; but this is woven subtly into the plot rather than stitched on for effect.

Tony Manero won the top prize at the 26th annual Torino Film Festival in 2008, as well as the FIPRESCI prize (the international federation of film critics) for best film, and Alfredo Castro was awarded best actor. The film was also Chile’s submission to the 81st Academy® Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. There are no lessons learnt here. No character arcs. No redemption. No happy ending. This shouldn’t deter people from seeing it though. Whoever does, will be rewarded by experiencing one of the better films to hit the screens this year.

Steven Galvin
(See biog here)

Rated 16 (see IFCO website for details)
Tony Manero
is released on 10th April 2009
Tony Manero – Official Website

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