By – Gareth Jones
For fans of Chilean film and history, stunning black/white cinematography, genre-bending cinema
Pablo Larrain is a force to be reckoned with as a writer/director and as a producer. He may now be Chile’s greatest filmmaker. He has written and directed multiple films with the great Gael Garcia Bernal including No, Neruda, and 2019’s Ema. He has also turned his vision to female icons in the United States and England with Jackie and Spencer respectively, which lead to Oscar nominations for both leading stars. In addition to that, he and his brother Juan De Dios Larrain founded a production company Fabula which has brought multiple Sebastian Silva films to the screen as well as so many South American films including this year’s Sorcery, one of my favorites. With El Conde Larrain turns back to his home country to examine the effects of it’s horrific dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Horrific is the right word to describe Pinochet and in the film Pablo Larrain uses the vampire genre to tell the story of this monster and it proves an apt approach. Larrain and fellow screenwriter Guillermo Calderon have crafted a tale that allows for an examination and inspection of the atrocities through the lens of vampiric tropes and themes. Much like What We Do In the Shadows allows audiences to laugh at the challenges of the modern world, the genre allows for the presentation of inhuman deeds where they are expected, in this case being committed by a 250 year old vampire.
In El Conde, Pinochet is actually a common French soldier who after witnessing the beheading of Marie Antoinette, abandons his status when he licks the blood from the blade and discovers a taste for the sanguine. He goes on to become a vampire and living through history until he decides that he also wants power, finding the country of Chile perfect for his domination and greed. We then join him after he has faked his own death to live out in the remote region of Patagonia He lives with his now aged wife (who he refuses to turn) and his servant Fyodor who he has decided to turn into a vampire to keep his lifestyle going. The twist is that now Pinochet has decided he wants to die, and his offspring gather to find the secrets to his wealth. At the same time, a nun has been selected by the priests to go and kill the vampire. There are many twists along the way that keep the audience guessing.
Obviously, this story allows for symbolism and metaphors in connection to the actual life and terrible events in Chilean history. For me, this was extremely effective and even allowed for more connections to other dictators and events that have continued to be repeated by humanity. One of the most enriching aspects of the film is the cinematography by the master Edward Lachman, who started working in the 1970’s with Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders and has had an astonishing career including working with so many brilliant directors like Todd Haynes, Todd Solondz, and Robert Altman. Here, he shoots in black and white and it’s one of the most stunning uses. Of course, this fits perfectly with the genre, and allows for some nauseating violence which would have necessitated an NC-17 rating if it had been shot in color. It is gorgeous and lends nuance and depth to the story. The flying scenes in particular are hypnotic.
The acting is also pitch-perfect with Jaime Vadell continuing his stellar work with Larrain. The narrator and surprise guest is symbiotic just like it should be for such a tale, and this is provided by Scottish actress Stella Gonet, who is also part of Larrain’s cadre of actors.
Pablo Larrain continues to evolve as a filmmaker and artist and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Available to stream on Netflix
Written by: Gareth Jones
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