‘El Conde’ Review: Pablo Larraín’s Bracingly Original Satire of the Pinochet Regime and the Cycles of Evil

The Augusto Pinochet regime, which ruled Chile under an oppressive thumb with unspeakable human rights violations from 1973 to 1990, following the coup d’état that ousted Socialist president Salvador Allende, has been the subject of countless screen dramas. That includes a loose trilogy by Pablo Larraín, comprised of Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No, all of which observed the dictatorship from unique angles. But even by the director’s own distinctive standards, his return to the subject is a wild leap into irreverent originality, reimagining the deposed tyrant as a 250-year-old vampire on the verge of relinquishing eternal life.

Shot in ravishingly textured, crepuscular black and white by the great Ed Lachman, the Netflix film (opening Sept. 8 in theaters before streaming from Sept. 15) is as visually intoxicating and atmospheric as it is provocative, liberally mixing political satire with dark comedy and horror while examining a grim history that seems doomed to keep repeating itself.

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Audiences who pick up on the unmistakable voice of the movie’s wryly amused English-language narrator will guess about that famous figure’s appearance late in the action. But the extent of the role and the way it interlocks with the Pinochet narrative is the hilarious and wholly unexpected masterstroke of Guillermo Calderón and Larraín’s screenplay. It shows that while history’s villains often become synonymous the world over with Fascism, others who pass themselves off as garden-variety conservatives can be no less monstrous.

The opening shots deftly set the scene as the camera pans around a lonely farmhouse lashed by wind on the southernmost tip of Patagonia, its crumbling interiors filled with photographs, books and war memorabilia, some of it dating considerably further back than Pinochet’s evil reign in Chile.

The man himself, played with a commanding balance of cruelty, shameless self-justification, grizzled charm and decrepit physicality by Jaime Vadell, lives there in isolation with his conniving wife Lucía (Gloria Münchmeyer) and his devoted butler Fyodor (Alfredo Castro), a White Russian who ran Pinochet’s death camps and trained his soldiers to torture and kill for pleasure, filling mass graves with rebels.

While Augusto has steadfastly refused Lucía’s many requests over the years for him to bite and transform her, he did choose to reward Fyodor, turning the servant into a vampire who keeps a refrigerator full of human hearts in an underground room connected to the house via dusty corridors.

Following an existential crisis that caused him to question the value of his continuing existence, Augusto has sworn off blood. That decision has been met with approval by his five middle-aged — and still very much mortal — children, who have grown impatient to inherit the fortune believed to be stashed in secret bank accounts, along with properties all over the world.

When their father appears to change his mind — swooping into the city to find human prey, slicing them open with a curved dagger and removing their hearts to be liquified in a blender and drunk as a blood smoothie — the five grasping siblings descend on the house, all resentful entitlement. They also bring in a young nun, Carmencita (Paula Luchsinger), trained in both accountancy and exorcisms; she’s charged with expelling the evil from Pinochet’s aged body and uncovering his loot to help save the enfeebled Church from financial ruin.

Carmencita’s interviews with each of the family members and Fyodor become a detailed inquiry into the crimes and corruption of the regime decades, conducted with a charming smile even as she bluntly points out the complicity of all of them in the horrors. But despite a suitcase filled with all the usual tools to dispatch vampires — holy water, a crucifix, a wooden stake and silver hammer — things don’t go as planned. Augusto’s lust for life proves harder to extinguish than even he anticipated, especially once a figure from history steps forward to galvanize him.

Calderón and Larraín playfully recap Pinochet’s colorful fictionalized past, stretching back to his origins as a soldier in the army of Louis XVI, opportunistically switching sides during the French Revolution and collecting a souvenir from the guillotining of Marie Antoinette.

The narration sprinkles early clues about final-act revelations, explaining that Pinochet’s preference is for English blood because it tastes of the Roman Empire. But he ended up settling in Chile despite finding the blood of Latin American workers acrid in taste and bouquet. Rising to the rank of military Commander-in-Chief, he privately insisted on being called El Conde, or The Count. And whenever it came time for a reckoning in his life, he would fake his own death and even attend his own funeral.

There’s plenty of wit in the screenplay, drawing on both vampire lore and brutal political history to show that regret and repentance are concepts unfamiliar to dictators and their enablers, which in Pinochet’s case extended beyond his cronies and beyond national borders. The concluding scene, drily indicating the cyclical nature of autocracies, particularly in Latin America, is a delicious smack of gallows humor that’s also chilling.

Larraín’s cast is uniformly excellent, all of them finding the optimal balance between playing it straight and leaning into the macabre weirdness of the scenario. While at times the humor suggests a kinship with What We Do in the Shadows, the grounding in an infamous chapter of political history rife with non-supernatural horrors makes for a singular take on national trauma. And the subversiveness of molding a more revered political personage into the sinister force behind Pinochet gives the comic elements a big payoff with an Oedipal kick.

Lachman’s gothic-toned compositions are mesmerizing throughout, full of striking imagery like a boat full of nuns, their white habits flapping in the breeze as they sail across the channel to the Count’s house. Clever details in Rodrigo Bazaes’ production design and Muriel Parra’s costumes also add to the film’s rich visual pleasures. Effects work has a beautiful lo-fi, artisanal quality, notably the gorgeous sequences in which Pinochet takes flight in his military cape, soaring above the landscape and into the city to feast on his victims in a series of imaginative kills. There’s disarming humor also in a newly turned vampire’s wobbly first flight, like a clumsy bird.

The crowning glory is Juan Pablo Ávalo and Marisol García’s score — suitably heavy on tempestuous strings that go from brooding to agitation to full-throttle sinister power. Those passages are effectively blended with century-spanning compositions from Strauss, Britten, Purcell, Vivaldi, Gabriel Fauré, Arvo Pärt and André Caplet, among others.

While the investigative midsection slumps just a little, El Conde remains a spellbinding and mischievously spry spin on a deadly serious subject from a director who, in his tenth feature, continues to come up with audacious surprises.

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