THE STORY – Augusto Pinochet is a vampire ready to die, but the vultures around him won’t let him go without one last bite.
THE CAST – Jaime Vadell, Gloria Münchmeyer, Alfredo Castro & Paula Luchsinger
THE TEAM – Pablo Larraín (Director/Writer) & Guillermo Calderón (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 110 Minutes
There are a great deal of ways one can approach the telling of a historical figure. The most familiar method is attempting to tackle as much of a lifespan into one film, the “cradle to grave” process. This can be effective, though its sheer number of entries makes any new effort feel wholly derivative. A more novel way has often been to focus only on a narrow sliver, examining a defining moment that occurred in the subject’s lifetime and how it commented on a greater principle for them. There’s more variety in this environment, but it can also be tricky to know which section to hollow out. For “El Conde,” the answer to tackling this topic lies in a third option: pure fantasy that is meant to be more metaphorical and rid of real-world logic. As such, it’s a profound display that also struggles to maintain a cohesive thematic whole.
The figure at the center of this particular piece is Augusto Pinochet (Jamie Vadell), known in the real world as the violent Chilean dictator who terrorized his country with a cruel rule. While he may have died almost twenty years ago, this version of the man is portrayed as an immortal vampire who first appeared during the French Revolution before emigrating to South America. After faking his death, he is now more than two hundred years old and longs for death, particularly because he hates being remembered as a thief. He vows to stop drinking blood, but that has not stopped gruesome murders in the vicinity from ceasing. His extended family is called into this crisis, as the judgmental wife and mother (Gloria Münchmeyer) lauds over her clan. In addition, a nun (Paula Luchsinger) has been called to investigate this diabolical sin unfolding, and she joins the other parties, all with sinister motivations that will reveal their true, darker natures.
Director Pablo Larraín is no stranger to examining history and trying to elevate biographical material to something more daring and artistic. His films like “Jackie” and “Spencer” are prime examples, but even a somewhat more traditional piece like “No” brings a stark creativity in its presentation. The same can be found here, particularly in the utilization of Ed Lachman’s striking cinematography. Some compositions within the textured black-and-white look recall classic designs of early cinema, and it’s quite engrossing. Larraín has always had a talent for crafting beautiful imagery that guides one into a hypnotic trance, and the same can be found here in the expressive scenery on display.
However, visuals are not enough to make a film entirely successful, and the script from Larraín and Guillermo Calderón is a rather tricky engagement. There are a number of intriguing themes being explored here, chief among them the cyclical nature of fascism that doesn’t ever die but remains dormant and rises again. It’s easy to see such history repeat itself in the modern age, as well as how widespread such ideology can be in touching many different nations. The literal vampire sucking the life force from the peasants they see entitled to control plays like the obvious metaphor it appears to be. However, this examination struggles to completely sell, with a tonal imbalance that is never properly calibrated. The humor mostly lands with awkward beats, setting up lame jokes that come across as incongruous. There’s also a separate conflict with the children seeking to gain the family fortune through inheritance that has a twinge of comedy but is wrapped around such thin characters that it’s difficult to become engaged. The third act is where it is strongest, reveling in its chaos and absurdity. Yet, the finale never quite brings these strands together in a way that is thoroughly compelling. The concepts are enticing but leave much to be desired in terms of their demonstration.
As the vampiric Pinochet, Vadell has a subdued charm that is appropriate for such a weary traveler with an insatiable bloodlust. He calmly maintains a screen presence that is both endearing and hostile, serving an unpredictability that is captivating. The same can be said of Münchmeyer, delivering the film’s best performance. There’s a weariness she also brings to the role that manages to capture a more reserved sense of venom, too. It’s a performance filled with equal parts longing and spitefulness, giving the character a fully lived-in personality of a woman trapped by a monster as she yearns for equal power. Luchsinger holds a mix of angelic beauty and wicked cynicism as she represents the self-serving apparatus of the church. However, her character is another one that exists more to comment on the theme than the actual character, and this is particularly true in the case of Pinochet’s children. All of them are so lackluster; their issue with maintaining the family fortune they wish to inherit is very pedestrian. Like the screenplay, the assembled cast is a mix of inviting personalities and dull filler.
There’s an obvious amount of talent that can be found in “El Conde.” Larraín’s methods as a storyteller can be alluring and frustrating at the same time. The commentary is fascinating in its themes, yet it also has difficulty collecting this patchwork into material that holds it together. Some funny moments can hit, but it roughs up against the more dour sequences. The metaphorical analysis can be interesting, but it also is too plainly stated to be innovative. The history being unraveled here certainly has a unique spin, but the narrative doesn’t make itself quite as daring. There is no doubt that real life will always be of interest to this director, which means there’s room for another work that is just as stimulating in concept as it is in exhibition.