John Travolta’s Russian-kicking, arm-spinning, and—of course—finger-pointing turn on the flashing dance floor is one of the most famous scenes in movie history, but how many people born after, say, 1965 have actually seen Saturday Night Fever from beginning to end? It’s a gritty film about a working-class boy who seeks redemption on the dance floor, a device recycled for three of the films that defined the following decade—Flashdance, Footloose, and Dirty Dancing—but in nowhere near as harrowing a manner. And yet, there were those who had it worse than Travolta’s Brooklyn boy Tony Manero. A film named after his character, making its local debut at the Walker Art Center on September 11, is here to remind us of that.
Tony Manero tells the story of Raúl (Alfredo Castro, who also cowrote the screenplay with Mateo Iribarren and director Pablo Larrain), a Santiago professional dancer in the disco era—which coincided with the first years of Augusto Pinochet’s brutally repressive regime. We follow Raúl through the week leading up to a televised contest to crown “the Tony Manero of Chile.” (The following week, it’s scheduled to be a contest for the title of “the José Feliciano of Chile.”) Raúl is obsessed with Saturday Night Fever, and he strives to become a pure reincarnation of the Travolta character. To that end, he acquires a white suit that matches Travolta’s to the button, assembles a glass dance floor for the club, and creates a disco ball by smashing a mirror and pasting the fragments to a soccer ball.
This sounds like the formula for an uplifting family film, but in fact Tony Manero makes Reservoir Dogs look like a feel-good movie. Raúl is a deeply unsympathetic protagonist, an outright sociopath whose character becomes clear in an early scene where he comes to the rescue of an elderly woman who’s been mugged, leading her to the safety of her home only to brutally beat her and steal her television—which he later trades for the glass tiles he needs to build his dance floor. If channelling Travolta is Raúl’s escape, it’s an escape he fights for like a convict wielding a shiv. To say that the film has an unhappy ending is to reveal nothing about the outcome of the dance contest.
Larrain employs a Dogme-style quasi-documentary approach, underlining the film’s harsh realism. Even the dance scenes are without joy or release: Raúl is a skilled dancer, but his precise replication of Travolta’s performance is ironic for being completely emptied of Travolta’s charm and excitement. When two of Raúl’s young protégés at the club try to choreograph an original routine, Raúl vetoes it: “That’s not in the movie.”
Tony Manero is effective as a character portrait and a harrowing depiction of life under martial law—a situation that, the film seems to argue, normalizes Raúl’s bullying behavior. Still, it’s a bitter pill of a film, difficult to recommend. If you do see it, be warned: it’ll be a while before you want to dance again.
Jay Gabler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.
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