If Chilean auteur Pablo Larraín displayed one constant over the course of a stunningly multifarious filmography since his breakout sophomore feature “Tony Manero” (2006), it’s his inquisitiveness pitched at the fault lines of politics and family. He sinks his teeth deep—so deep—into that curiosity in his luminous and pensively funny political satire “El Conde,” a fiercely original genre outing that imagines notorious Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet as a centuries-old vampire and inventively considers the perpetual, shape-shifting nature of evil that goes unpunished.
A long-dead dictator who’s in fact undead and still poisoning the veins of the nation while his kin pecks at his wealth like voracious vultures? What a perfectly gothic playground for Larraín, one that aptly dwells in the shadows of a nondescript stony mansion and liberally draws blood out of the director’s own greatest hits. Expect the sardonic humor of Larraín’s political period masterwork “No” here, along with the searching qualities of his anti-biopic “Neruda,” the genre-adjacent domestic claustrophobia of “Jackie” and “Spencer,” as well as the many hard-to-swallow familial meals of that last one.
Narrated in crispy voiceover like a Grimm tale, the result is something unexpected: fun, bloody and ambitiously centuries-spanning, the film demonstrates with sting over one-too-many freshly-blended heart cocktails that malevolence has always been an everlasting presence amongst us. (Warning: I’m not joking about those pulpy heart-puree drinks. They make an appearance or two.)
Still, don’t let any of this blood talk put you off “El Conde.” Even though the movie shows a necessary dose of violence, peerless cinematographer Ed Lachman’s grainy visuals filmed in high-contrast black-and-white are hardly mindless gore. Instead, they feel straight out of the vaults of “Nosferatu” master F. W. Murnau, fashioning a textured tapestry that feels playfully decadent: both knowingly out of reality’s reach and gorgeous to look at, especially when a caped Pinochet flies over the gleaming nightlights of Santiago like a fanged Superman.
It’s amid this high level of artifice that the great Jaime Vadell’s Pinochet lives in a self-inflicted exile, having a major eternal life crisis with the wrongdoings of his past finally catching up with him. And what a long life that has been, one that doesn’t just consist of his traditional birth, “fake” death and the period when he reigned over Chile for nearly two decades since 1974.
In Larraín’s imagination, Pinochet has in fact been around for 250 years, since the French Revolution. Thus, he has seen it all, including Marie Antoinette’s beheading—an occurrence and era that Larraín, production designer Rodrigo Bazaes and costume designer Muriel Parra lushly bring to life with the heightened demeanor of silent film.
Throughout, Vadell proves that he’s more than up to the task of rising to the level of all the theatricality on display. Through a deliciously slimy performance that smartly never demands the viewer’s sympathy and splits the difference between unease and conceit, he delivers a fictionalized historical figure both fearsome and apprehensive, while Paula Luchsinger’s newly arrived doe-eyed French nun/accountant Carmencita aides him and the family during his existential transition. Is there any good in him, the tiniest shred hiding somewhere in his soul? If there is, Carmencita intends to uncover and reconcile with it.
You could argue that the intentions of Larraín and his co-writer Guillermo Calderón (of “Neruda” and “Ema”) are sometimes a tad too spelled out throughout their unrestrained alternate universe. The duo take the trite phrase “history repeats itself” to heart in the literal sense, making a conventional statement about the mutating image (yet unchanging nature) of evil that no one who knows a smidgen of world history or ever compared the actions of a present-day fascist to a WWII-era Nazi can argue against.
Still, “El Conde” feels so singular, both as an allegory and as a movie about Pinochet, that its theoretical predictability hardly matters. Not when Larraín and Calderón remain self-aware enough throughout the film to take it just seriously enough, without ever abandoning the farcical character of their tale.
In that, their story progresses swiftly when Pinochet decides to bring an end to his undeadness, with his parasitic family members—including his fiendish wife Lucia, (a scene-stealing Gloria Münchmeyer), his questionable wingman Fyodor (Alfredo Casto) and a maternal being with the year’s greatest faux-cameo that shouldn’t be spoiled—start to discuss sensitive matters like inheritance. And you thought the “Succession” folk were bloodsuckers from hell…
The most provocative dynamic in “El Conde” predictably occurs between Pinochet and Carmencita. Gradually, the latter’s expressive, Falconetti-like vulnerability (Larraín underscores this resemblance at least once with a nod to “The Passion of Joan of Arc”) becomes susceptible to the all-encompassing felonies of a career criminal who casually shrugs off murder and denies he was ever a thief.
Curiously, stealing is the only accusation that brings him some semblance of shame. In our indictment-dominated news cycle, it’s a spine-tingling thought to consider that unless brought to justice the bad can still and forever ruin the good, with their unpunished offenses casting a perpetual, vampiric shadow on the fate of the future. Talk about a bite that sinks too close to the bone.