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Venice 2023 review: 'El Conde' - Pablo Larraín's horrific Pinochet panto

El Conde
El Conde Copyright Venice Film Festival
Copyright Venice Film Festival
By David Mouriquand
Published on
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Only Fascists Left Alive...

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“This whole farce began centuries ago – in France, of course.”

Our narrator Margaret Thatcher tells us so, as she guides us through this darkly comedic political horror from Pablo Larraín, who returns to the Lido after 2021’s Spencer with a truly unique and bloody proposition. The Chilean director imagines fascist dictator General Augusto Pinochet (Jaime Vadell) as a vampire, who lives hidden in a crumbling mansion. Unlike in real life, he didn’t die in complete impunity in 2006; he’s survived until now by sucking the blood of his victims – with a proclivity for heart bloodshakes and keeping broadly away from workers blood, which tastes “acrid” – as well as faking his own death on multiple occasions.

However, after 250 years of life, from the French Revolution to modern day Chile, Pinochet is experiencing something of an existential crisis, one which leads him to stop drinking blood. He’s finally decided to die. For good this time.

“Why would I want to keep on living with in a country that hates me?” he says, questioning the act of living in a world that remembers him as a thief.

His inheritance hungry and openly opportunistic children don’t help much either.

His final plans may not be so simple, as he suspects that someone is trying to keep him alive. That, and he ends up finding a new lease of life through an unexpected relationship with Carmencita (Paula Luchsinger), an undercover nun-exorcist posing as an accountant to enter the mansion to better take down the tyrant.

There’s plenty to admire about this bold historical revisionist farce posing as a gothic fairy tale – not least some sumptuous monochrome tableaus featuring a caped figure gliding through the night skies of Santiago, courtesy of ace cinematographer Ed Lachman (The Virgin Suicides, Carol). The batshit premise is truly something to be treasured, and there’s more than a hint of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove in Larraín and co-screenwriter Guillermo Calderón’s narrative tone and the way the pitch-black humour hits most of its marks. 

However, there might not be enough to unreservedly love here.

The unexpectedly prevalent (and graphic) violence in the decade-hopping opening act unravels disappointingly fast, leading to a middle section that features repetitive interview segments that are a bit of a chore to get through. This second act lacks some of the inventiveness and impact of earlier scenes, like a young Pinochet (then “Pinoche”) licking the blood off of Marie Antoinette’s guillotine and respectfully decamping with her severed head as a keepsake.

Things do singularly pick up in the last act, which is an absolute blast. Nothing shall be spoiled here, but if you thought the initial set-up was nuts, new characters (who were until then heard but not seen) appear with Freudian motives, and it’s something to behold.

The lingering snag with El Conde is that its satirical heft is undermined by an overly zealous everything-but-the-cardiac-blender approach to the commentary, meaning it all gets a bit messy come curtain fall. You understand what Larraín is getting at with this allegorical cautionary tale stressing history’s bleak tendency to repeat itself. By utilising the vampire myth, the director better highlights how the crimes and tyranny of a symbol of fascism persist through time and don’t just fade with death - like vampires. Frustratingly, there’s little shown with regards to Pinochet’s crimes, thereby diluting the possible impact of how brutal his impunity remains, and the critique of the church’s role during the dictator’s rule is undermined by the ultimately wasted character of Carmencita.

That said, with the ubiquity of biopics (especially this year in Competition – see: Maestro, Priscilla, Ferrari ...), this aesthetically polished Pinochet panto is something to be celebrated. It is brilliantly grotesque, uniquely inventive, and features some incredibly memorable lines – including Pinochet announcing he’s retiring from the dinner table where his whole family are assembled and assuring his initiable wife that he’ll “ride (her) like a bandit’s horse” one last time. 

El Conde will sit nicely alongside Larraín’s previous films No and The Club, also about the tenacious spectre of Pinochet; and while its ambitious execution may prove too dense for some viewers, you’ll still want to sink your teeth into this one.

El Conde premiered at the Venice Film Festival and lands on Netflix on 15 September.

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