Tony Manero Review
My first encounter with Tony Manero, the character played by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, came at an impressionable time in my life, the film actually having the distinction of being the first X-rated film that I ever managed to see at the local cinema. Only 13 years old at the time, somehow I managed to be overlooked by the security weeding out the “fevered” queues at a rather run-down The Avenue cinema on Royal Avenue in Belfast back in 1978. Thinking about it now, they were probably just as lax about enforcing certification restrictions as modern cineplexes towards a blockbuster film that is neither porn nor a exploitation horror and thus clearly not really going to see them prosecuted for depraving the minds of youngsters, (not that you would have seen any of those in Belfast in the 70s, although even that wouldn’t have stopped the placard-wielding Free Presbyterians from protesting outside the doors of any cinema attempting to show such X-rated filth). In recognition of this fact, as well as the extra legally obtained money that could be gained from a wider commercial appeal, Saturday Night Fever was accordingly cut a year or so later so that it could be granted a PG (Parental Guidance) certificate.
At the time however, the uncut Saturday Night Fever certainly did come as a shock to a barely-teen anticipating the hyped-up glamour of John Travolta’s glitterball gyrations to the energetic vibe of the Bee Gees, when the highest achievement one could imagine was to have the ability to step onto the dance-floor of the youth club disco, see the masses stand to one side and have all those young girls look on in adoration. In reality, Saturday Night Fever showed a much darker, adult world of poverty and deprivation, of family conflict and dead-end jobs, of unwanted pregnancies and suicide. The glamour was indeed there, but for Tony Manero, a 19 year-old in Brooklyn living entirely for that Saturday night moment, it was at best only a temporary escape from the harsh realities and responsibilities of an adult world outside that would eventually have to be confronted. For a young boy in the Belfast audience, and doubtless for many others elsewhere seeking escape from the outside world maybe not on the dance-floor but through the movies, here was something with which one could certainly identify.
How much greater an impression then would the figure of Tony Manero, immaculately groomed and elegantly attired in his double-buttoned white suit, have on a 52 year-old man living in Chile in 1979 under the oppressive rule of Augusto Pinochet? For Raúl (Alfredo Castro), his repeated visits to showings of the film at his cinema in Santiago, the attempt to enter a Tony Manero lookalike contest on a daytime television show, his setting up of a live Saturday Night Fever dance company with members of his family isn’t so much about compensating for a mundane existence, but rather escaping from a life under a brutal and ruthless dictatorship that holds very real everyday horrors. If there is anything that Raúl has in common with his American counterpart, it’s in having one seriously messed-up family life, but otherwise his identification with Tony Manero is a troubling one that is quite out of place with the world around him and goes beyond mere obsession. Raúl is even more driven than John Travolta’s Tony Manero, determined to do whatever it takes to live his dream in defiance of the reality, and if that involves killing and stealing to get what he needs, well, that’s how things are done in Pinochet’s Chile, and who’s going to notice or even care?
There is however more to Tony Manero-the film than it being the escapist ideal of an impressionable, sexually impotent, emotionally disturbed man reacting against the grim reality of the world he lives in. Through the incongruity of an aging Chilean man in a three-piece white suit creating his own makeshift world on the model of Saturday Night Fever, director Pablo Larraín’s film would seem to be making a point about the creation of Pinochet’s brutal regime through the imposition and influence of American culture and values on a country where they just don’t fit. While the younger members of his dance troupe for example are involved in clandestine action against Pinochet’s dictatorship, surreptitiously printing and distributing leaflets denouncing the regime, Raúl is more concerned about the details of a double-button on the trousers of his Tony Manero suit, the technicalities of building a glass dance-floor with coloured underfloor lighting and eliminating any competition for the televised lookalike contest.
It’s an fair point, one that makes more than a nod to Fellini’s Ginger and Fred, but the use of Saturday Night Fever is an imperfect example of the influence of American values or even just as an example of the persuasive power of Hollywood cinema to corrupt a foreign mindset, if that is indeed the director’s intention. There are surely other examples of mindless Hollywood fluff entertainment from this period better suited towards this aim (and indeed the replacement of Saturday Night Fever with Grease at the local flea-pit does provoke an appropriately extreme reaction with Raúl). While this leads to some inconsistencies or even just plain baffling behaviour on the part of the characters to make its point, the imperfection of the model is to some extent intentional and the sheer grotesquery that results in the family relationships and from the powerful juxtaposition that Larraín makes between the political climate of fear, sudden arrest and death alongside the absurdity of the lengths Raúl goes to in order to win a lookalike contest on television, is likely to provoke a very strong, often unsettling and frankly very disturbing impression indeed.