Film Review – El Conde
El Conde (2023) operates on two fronts. On one hand, it is a beautifully gruesome horror fantasy, in which we dive once more into the world of blood sucking vampires. On the other, it is a biting (ba dum!) satire of Chile’s most ruthless dictator, Augusto Pinochet. Admittedly, I am not familiar with Chilean history, but a quick internet search tells me that Pinochet ruled the country from 1973 to 1990. His reign was littered with violence – executions, imprisonment, torture, and political persecutions. Pinochet would eventually pass in 2006, but the film – directed by Pablo Larraín – re-imagines him as a decrepit old vampire, faking his death to spend his days hiding in secret. Stripped of power, Pinochet (Jaime Vadell) is a shell of his formal self. He is left with an existential crisis: should he continue drinking blood and live forever, or decide to die once and for all?
That is where the intelligence of the writing comes into play. The screenplay (Larraín, Guillermo Calderón) is razor sharp in its examination of power. Larraín’s direction (along with Sofía Subercaseaux’s editing) conjures up an imaginative backstory for their lead character, suggesting that he first became a vampire during the French Revolution. We jump through time, witnessing Pinochet bouncing from one country to the next, always siding with fascists and other oppressive powers. He finally settles on conquering Chile for himself. Choosing to make him a vampire is an obvious reference to the real Pinochet sucking the life out of the people he controlled. The lust for power and wealth is a temptation hard to ignore, and we see that through Pinochet’s offspring. With rumors of Pinochet deciding to kick the bucket, his wife and adult children have gathered at his estate, all hoping to split his wealth amongst them.
The first act has a breathless energy as it provides context for the main story. An English speaking narrator (Stella Gonet) guides us through the narrative, providing asides, anecdotes, and even her own opinion over what we are seeing. The momentum slows down considerably in the middle portion, as much of the action involves the bickering between family members. Some are eager to know what inheritance will come to them, others hope Pinochet will pass his “gift” of being a vampire. Carmen (Paula Luchsinger Escobar) is invited to settle matters under the guise of an accountant. In reality, she is a nun, sent to save whatever soul Pinochet has left. Sporting a haircut that reminds us of Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Carmen has a wide-eyed curiosity of the family and all their illegal endeavors. The way she bluntly asks questions and their surprisingly open responses has a strange, confession-like effect.
Above all else, El Conde is an achievement in visual design. Edward Lachman’s black and white photography has a lush, dreamy atmosphere. The fog surrounding Pinochet’s home has an otherworldly presence. The visuals are reminiscent of silent films, where bold, expressionistic images set the overall tone. When a vampire flies into the sky and hovers over the city skyline, it’s not just a person floating like a superhero. They fly with grace, as though they were dancing in midair. The production design and art direction gives this universe a timeless quality, where we can very well be living in the past or present. Given that this is a story about vampires, there’s plenty of opportunity for some gruesome horror. Larraín and his team do not hold back from showing the effects of Pinochet’s taste for flesh. They make room for some funny black humor, as the narrator describes how certain blood (depending on the age and gender of the victim) will vary in nourishment.
The middle portion is made up of conversations, as we come to understand the family’s dysfunctions. They all want something for themselves, and even discuss the possibility of “helping” Pinochet hurry along with the process of dying. The camerawork takes a page out of Wes Anderson’s playbook. Indoor scenes are shot in static, symmetrical close ups. Carmen will be in the middle of the frame asking a question, to which we cut to a family member (also aligned in center frame) providing an answer. The result is a bouncy back and forth interaction, amplifying the dry comedy. Props and set decorations feel perfectly balanced – from Pinochet’s dusty library, the main dining area, to the corridors and cellar beneath the estate, everything feels lived in and organic. The mise en scène creates shots so gorgeous they could be framed and hung on a wall.
Being immortal has got to suck, because sooner or later all you’re left with are your memories. That’s the conflict Pinochet now faces. On several occasions, we see him looking back with fondness and regret. He is constructed with weird quirks, such as his obsession with Marie Antoinette, whose execution he witnessed in person. Was it all worth it in the end? Pinochet’s inner turmoil is a major concern of his most faithful minion, Fyodor (Alfredo Castro). Of all the characters we meet, Fyodor might be the saddest. A vampire himself, Fyodor is cursed to be by Pinochet’s side for all time. Fyodor takes pride in his ruthlessness, bragging about his time in the army and how he taught his soldiers to kill for pleasure. His admiration for his master is a disturbing examination of loyalty. Of the entire cast, Castro steals most of the limelight. He inhabits Fyodor as a man stuck in a toxic relationship. Even when he tries to keep his own secrets, he can’t help but be swayed under Pinochet’s thumb. What makes it all the more troubling is that Fyodor realizes this and goes along with it anyway. Like Erich von Stroheim in Sunset Blvd. (1950), Fyodor’s entire identity has been shaped by the authority of another.
Whatever stagnation there may be in the middle section, El Conde makes up for it with a hilariously over the top third act twist. This revelation shows the production’s willingness to push the limit for maximum satirical effect. The film shows how demons roam around us in plain sight, their willingness to sacrifice morality for stature, and the absurd lengths they’ll go to maintain it. It is equal parts beautiful, funny, and grotesque. It takes real world villains and repurposes them into over the top caricatures.