Shot in spectral gray tones by Ed Lachman, Larrain’s film, narrated in suspiciously Thatcheresque plum tones by Stella Gonet, posits Pinochet (Jaime Vadell) as being 250 years old, a French veteran of the Reign of Terror (licking guillotine blades) escaped to South America and now ensconced in the Atacama Desert in the ruins of one of his own concentration camps. (There’s a full-scale guillotine outside, and you glimpse human rib cages in the scrub brush.) Still hiding out from the World Court, Pinochet says he longs for death, but having recently resumed his night hunting the old man has triggered a double intervention: Not only do his five grown children converge on his barren digs, hoping to find out why he hasn’t finally died and therein left them his vast and scattered troves of stolen funds, but also a young “exorcist nun” (Paula Luchsinger) has been dispatched by the Vatican to pose as an accountant intent on getting his books in order, while in fact preparing to make good with stake and hammer.
Complicating this preposterous mix is Larrain vet Alfredo Castro as Pinochet’s loyal and equally vampiric manservant, who maintains a catacomb pantry of stale hearts (to be popped into a blender for a smoothie), and Mrs. Pinochet (Gloria Münchmeyer), who wants to get bitten and so secretly feeds her husband blood even as he wants to just expire. As in most of Larrain’s films, the plot’s moving parts keep moving, but recursively, so the story doesn’t progress so much as do figure eights around its central conundrum. (It worked superbly, I thought, with 2015’s The Club and the 2016 double-header, Neruda and Jackie.) But El Conde’s kernel concept is a broad-swipe symbolic lark, a genre goof, that doesn’t feel particularly inspired in the world of What We Do in the Shadows, etc.
A sizable bulk of the story and the comedy has Luchsinger’s bird-like gamine interviewing the entire clan about the plundered resources and homicidal corruption of the Pinochet regime, which literally bled the country dry; acres of historical malfeasance is reiterated with a glib shrug. The mercenary children (including Antonia Zegers, Amparo Noguera, and Diego Munoz) are smugly well aware of the vampirism, just as they knew all about the years of disappearings, executions and torture dungeons. (The very opinionated narrator is as royalist and nihilistic as everyone else, and eventually shows up in the flesh, so to speak.) You don’t have to eat innocent people’s hearts in order to be intractably evil, it seems — kleptocratic right-wing power and greed is predation, pure and simple. It’s a salient, if obvious, point to make, but then why are we doing vampires?
Why not? El Conde is ultimately a minor film — it may be that vampires are an exhausted pop culture idea by now, especially as metaphor — but it’s a fun one, bristling with a sardonic spiritedness that often detours toward unexpected flights of absurdity. Of course, we can afford to be amused. I can’t help but wonder what a Chilean of a certain age, like Guzmán, would make of it.
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