VENICE 2023 :: ‘El Conde’ Review Pablo Larraín’s Latest Is A Bold, Wildly Irreverent Sensational Creation
By Todd McCarthy, Deadline August 31, 2023
El Conde (The Count), the former political and army leader, boasts that he’s“tasted blood from every corner of the world,” and that English blood “is his favorite… of course.”
Pablo Larraín’s string of mostly 20th century biographical dramas hits a pinnacle of audacious brilliance with El Conde (The Count), a madly inspired reinvention of events embedded in the notion that longtime Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet became a vampire who ultimately tires of life and wants out after living some 250 years.
After playing it relatively straight and serious in their biopics of Princess Diana, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Pablo Neruda, the director and his shrewd and brilliant playwright collaborator Guillermo Calderón let their imaginations go wild (albeit rigorously so), and return with a sensational creation overflowing with a rush of startling notions that put this alternative look at a sinister ruling family on a top shelf all its own. Smart audiences worldwide will devour this bold, wildly irreverent take on its insidious subjects. After its festival debuts at Venice and Telluride, the film will make its Netflix home screen bow on September 15.
While it’s likely that veering too far off the known track of historical events concerning the much loved and admired Diana and Jackie would have not been advisable, the same perhaps does not apply to the pivotal figure here, the much reviled army officer, Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. This man was Numero Uno of Chile’s fascist regime that prevailed from 1973-90, and who died at the ripe old age of 91 having killed untold numbers and with more than 300 criminal charges pending against him.
But an inspired creative stroke devised by Larraín and Calderón provides an alternate version of the country’s recent history that launches the new film into its own rarified creative orbit, one that provides startling new layers of meaning along with raucous amusement. To up the ante even further, the subject seems to have inspired the director to surpass himself in the stylistic realm; dramatically and visually, The Countoverflows with smart ideas and startling images that never seem gratuitous. It’s as if someone commanded Larraín and Calderón to amaze and astonish, and they willingly obliged.
The setting could scarcely be more remote, the characters less embraceable. On the forbiddingly cold southern tip of Chile lives a small group of history’s cast-offs, awful people who, to the country’s long misfortune, not only ruled but made sure that the nation remained a backwater, a place where no one would want to visit or willingly live if they could help it. The superb black-and-white cinematography of Ed Lachman, at the top of his form, plays a big role in sustaining the elegantly claustrophobic environment where the characters are, in essence, trapped.
While settling down in this vicinity would not be anyone’s first choice as a retirement community, it perfectly suits this little group of history’s leftovers; assuredly, no one will bother them here. “Some people live longer than they should,” one of them opines, and certainly few would disagree that these few members of Pinochet’s family and inner circle should have been disappeared a long time ago. How many old vampires have you ever seen who needed a walker to get around?
Stuck with each other, and destined to forever rehash their moments of greatness, jealousies, petty grievances and assiduously applied revenge, the small group of family members and cronies resides on an isolated compound on a barren landscape that well complements their cold and bitter personalities. But what memories they have! Who else has pertinent stories of events in which he played a prominent part dating back more than 250 years?
But such are things with the titular El Conde (Jaime Vardera), the Count. This is a fellow who has outlived all his enemies and killed many of them, has had a checkered career but always prevailed.Larraín and Calderónhave come up with the devilishly delicious idea of turning the fellow into a vampire. This could strike some more historically minded, art house-partial viewers into feeling that the talented filmmakers have somehow cheapened themselves by entering the arena of ghosts and ghouls, but to the contrary; the device actually offers a penetrating perspective on history from someone who was also a deeply committed combatant.
The creators are able to pull it off because they know both their history, have smart ways of telling a story and can deliver satire of the darkest order. These unrepentant fascists have undoubtedly for years had the same bitter, self-aggrandizing things to say about their late-in-life status as political outcasts as they putter around their dark but entirely comfortable final home far from the center of the world.The Count, the former political and army leader, boasts that he’s “tasted blood from every corner of the world,” and that English blood “is his favorite… of course.”
And so it goes with the film’s tartly tasty take on the doings of the world. The Count seems tired and utterly dissolute most of the time, to the point that he openly admits he’s ready to call it a life, but that doesn’t preclude some very bloody mischief in the interim. Among those with him in exile are his wife, the unscrupulous Lucia Hiriart (a terrific Gloria Munchmeyer), who remained married to Pinochet for 63 years despite his various exploits, and his ever-loyal butler (Alfredo Castro), who knows where the bodies are buried.
The interactions of these aged figures is always amusing and often hilariously mordant, as these lifelong fascists who have somehow survived all manner of conflicts muse on their curious fate in a sort of Bunuelian limbo where everything is theoretically allowed but not often possible, where old folks move slowly on a very long runway toward death while El Conde secretly keeps himself going by gorging on all manner of bloody meat and assorted leftovers.
Most of the film takes place indoors, but Larraínsmartly opens things up at times by having them breathe some fresh air from time to time and, much more notably, has The Count flying over the barren environs in a way that Dracula would heartily approve. These sequences have a grace and absolute sense of reality that is stunning, perhaps the best of their kind.
In the title role, Vardera is magnificent as he references old — often very, very old — memories of what for him were the good old days. The film strikes a remarkable balance among elements that are potently dramatic, darkly amusing wistfully streaked and, at every moment, brilliantly accomplished.
Title: El Conde (The Count) Festival: Venice Film Festival Screening date: August 31, 2023 Distributor: Netflix Release date: September 15, 2023 (streaming) Director: Pablo Larraín Screenwriters: Guillermo Calderón, Pablo Larraín Cast: Jaime Vadell, Gloria Münchmeyer, Alfredo Castro, Paula Luchsinger Running time: 1 hr 50 min