Review by Sean Boelman
Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín is no stranger to genre-bending biopics, his critically acclaimed films Jackie and Spencer being some of the most unorthodox takes on the genre. His latest outing, El Conde, takes unorthodox to a whole ‘nother level, embracing its inherent absurdity in a way that creates a compelling (albeit obvious) farce.
El Conde is a historical fiction satire in which Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet is secretly a vampire, but after his image is disgraced, he decides to attempt to die once and for all. It’s an absolutely wild concept, and unsurprisingly given the talent involved, it delivers — becoming one of the most unique satires in recent memory.
Larraín and Guillermo Calderón’s script is not subtle with its commentary whatsoever. It’s clear from the moment you read the premise where this satire is heading. Yet, the movie still feels incredibly sharp despite its obviousness. It’s an ingenious and creative approach to a story we have seen done dozens of times before.
That being said, there is one thing that holds the film back: its narration. While the English-language narrator eventually ties into the story, the omnipresent nature of the narration makes the viewer feel as if their hand is being held, and that the filmmakers did not trust them to grasp the satire that it wears on its sleeve.
The narration also creates an unusual narrative structure that messes with the pacing a bit. There are ebbs and flows in an almost episodic style, as we drift through the alternate history versions of the events of Pinochet’s life. The sense of humor, while dry and acerbic, creates some seriously funny moments throughout, culminating in an absolutely wild finale.
Still, Larraín and Calderón do an excellent job of characterizing Pinochet in a way that does not feel like a caricature, which would have been easy to fall back into with a satire of this nature. Obviously, he’s a dictator who committed numerous war crimes — he’s not going to be likable. But the filmmakers, along with Jaime Vadell’s stunningly nuanced performance, do a great job of capturing the sinister type of charisma that allows
One of the big MVPs of El Conde is the stunning black and white cinematography by Edward Lachman. Although the movie is set relatively recently given its ties to historical events, Lachman’s cinematography — along with some exquisite production design — give it the air of an old-school gothic horror, and this atmosphere will immerse you in the story even when the narration threatens to pull you out.
Pablo Larraín has made a genuinely creative, smart satire in El Conde. Although the symbolism is overt and the commentary obvious, and the film still insists on holding the viewer’s hand despite this, it’s a well-made, entertaining, and provocative satire.
El Conde streams on Netflix beginning September 15.