A Moody & Sharp Satire From Larraín: ‘El Conde’ (REVIEW)

“Quien dijo que los vampiros viven vidas sin amor? El problema es que el amor muere antes de que muera el cuerpo.”

Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín is known for tackling complex cultural figures of history. Some of his most recent films,  Jackie and Spencer, deep dive into our culture’s fascination with prolific yet tragic figures like Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Diana, Princess of Wales. Their stories are layered and complex with grief, love, and contradictions. El Conde is a stark departure from that softer, more haunting exploration of feminine mysticism. Instead, Larraín shreds all opulence and color (literally) to dissect the violence left in the wake of Chilean Dictator Augusto Pinochet Ugarte from 1973 – 1981 in the form of a vampire. A vampire that doesn’t stray too far from the reality of who Pinochet was. 

El Conde stars Chilean film actor Jaime Vadell as the infamous dictator. His Pinochet is remarkably infused with wit and ominous apathy. Vadell shines as a bloodthirsty vampire, leaving no room for doubt that the line between the real Pinochet and this otherworldly beast is one degree of separation. After living 250 years in this world as a vampire, Pinochet decides to die once and for all. However, the promise of a second chance at life is too good to pass up. Or, a beautiful young nun whose sole purpose is to save the soul of a man who doesn’t have one to begin with. 

Jaime Vadell as El Conde in El Conde (COURTESY: Netflix)

Moody and set in a beautiful black and white tinge, cinematographer Edward Lachman makes black and white take on a role in itself. Working in a limited set, mostly in the compound-style home of Pinochet, Lachman brings to life a world that is both opulent and terrifying to inhabit. Shadows that look like the most expensive fabric but also conjure a deep sense of dread. Lachman manages to pull off a world of contradictions with Larraín’s direction of gothic whimsy. It is stunning to look at but difficult to fully appreciate as history unfolds in bouts of nausea and hysterics.

Paula Luchsinger is eerily beautiful and haunting as the morally righteous nun who ultimately succumbs to the seductive nature of power. Luchsinger is the seductive force that drives Pinochet to reconsider finally dying, to the dismay of his greedy children and his wife, former First Lady of Chile, Lucía Hiriart (Gloria Münchmeyer.) At its core, El Conde is about the soulless and endless nature of greed, power, and hunger. The kind of hunger that lurks in the hearts of almost every political leader. Who feed off the wealth and pain of its citizens. It’s in the way Pinochet takes the literal hearts of people with not a single ounce of remorse. I mean, is he having a second chance at eternal life? What’s a few souls here and there? 

Larraín’s serves as a satire that verges on biographical. El Conde, while primarily driven by its dark humor, keeps in tension the twisted and menacing reality of what Chileans lived through at the hands of Pinochet. Many of these comedic comments immediately follow a bleak reminder of how much of this happened. The estimated 3,000 or so people Pinochet persecuted and executed were real. His crimes were real. Vampire metaphor or not, this man reigned terror over Chile for over a decade, evading the consequences until his last dying breath. Satire, in this vein (no pun intended), taps into the ridiculous nature of these dictators and how frightening it is to think that our world allows their violent, absurd temperaments to reign. 

Paula Luchsinger as Teresita in El Conde (COURTESY: Netflix)

The final blow that paints a very sad and distinct picture of South American politics is when it is revealed to us that our narrator, with a breathy British accent, is none other than former Prime Minister of England, Margaret Thatcher (Stella Gonet.) What becomes a distorted, sinister double edge to the reveal is that she is the narrator of Pinochet’s vampiric tale and his mother in this version of Larraín’s morose tale. The shocking twist becomes almost instantly logical once the shock wears off. Of course, Margaret Thatcher birthed Augusto Pinochet, and both are vampires. Cut from the same cloth. Larraín is a moody retelling of a history that still haunts our modern world. It wasn’t that long ago that Pinochet lived, and it doesn’t seem like his presence; his legacy, just like Thatcher’s, has dissipated. No, we seemed doomed to retell the story repeatedly, like the endless life of a vampire, with the rise of fascism across our political landscape. 

El Conde is a cautionary tale. A crude reminder that underneath the sharp wit and outlandish visual of a vampiric Margaret Thatcher, mother to Pinochet, lurks the darkness of political extremism. Larraín does well with nostalgia in films like Spencer and Jackie, but some of his best work is in the realm of more politically keen films like Neruda and now El Conde

Rating: 9/10

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