Just four days ago was the 50th anniversary of the 1973 coup d’etat, when Augusto Pinochet came to absolute power in Chile. The Pinochet we all know and have heard of died in 2006, but El Conde, the new Netflix film, has a surprise for you. Pinochet is alive, and what happened in 2006, when Pinochet stopped his heart and pretended to die, was just one of his skills as a vampire. Yes, the Chilean dictator is actually a 250-year-old vampire who invites trouble after he is suspected of having been on a killing spree, feasting on the hearts of people. Vampires are known to do that. Eating hearts ensures that they grow young. This satirical black comedy, directed by Pablo Larrain, brings him back to familiar territory, dealing with Augusto Pinochet and the aftermath of his military dictatorship. In 2012, Larrain directed the critically acclaimed “No,” and here he is again dealing with ‘Pinochetism,’ but in a completely unexpected manner. The film also reminds me of his other film The Club, where a secluded house was the center of attraction.
El Conde (also titled The Count) begins the plot carefully. It has a dystopian calmness about it while describing the present day of the famous dictator. His origin story is as violent as they come. We are not told who Pinochet’s parents were, but we are told that he grew up in France during the time of Louis XVI. It was where he discovered his true identity—that of a vampire—and after surviving multiple assassination attempts, he deserted the king’s army and faked his own death. After a century of killing and sucking blood, he came to Chile with the ambition of becoming the king. He did become a dictator, which is technically no less than a king. The only difference is that kings have divine rights and are royalty. Pinochet seems to have been cursed by vampirism, and he does not yet have his bust in the presidential office. He is fed up with life and wants nothing more than to die. Lucia Hiriart, Pinochet’s wife, stays by his side, and soon, Pinochet’s children join him as well, when they get to know that their father is finally going to die, leaving behind all his wealth in off-shore accounts.
The film is brutal in describing Pinochet. Hiriart, in reality, died only a couple of years ago and had she still been alive, she wouldn’t have been too happy with being described as a person even worse than Pinochet. There is a voiceover in the film by a woman with a thick British accent, and it’s not an arbitrary choice. Only those who know Larrain’s previous works dealing with historical figures and who are familiar with Pinochet’s biography can predict who this woman is. The twist is bewildering, but as a metaphor describing the ‘caretaker of dictatorship,’ it works. There is another fascinating perspective added to the film in the form of the Catholic Church. A young nun is sent to Pinochet’s house to exorcize the devil in him. Maybe this has something to do with the idea that the Church had supported Pinochet in overthrowing Allende’s government in 1973 but was never brazenly supportive of his military dictatorship afterward. The children were all after the money, and it’s funny to see how they are all in agony seeing Pinochet having trouble dying. No death, no transfer of money.
The film is bleak and gory. The black-and-white frames remind me of Bela Tarr’s films, especially Satantango, where humanity is nearing extinction. In El Conde, humanity seems to have never existed. The evocative coldness in each character makes it hard to view the vampires differently from the humans. There is a seduction to vampirism that this film brings out. It does not do so by making us see the old Count’s face or his dirty fangs, but through the deliberate insipidity it recognizes in humans. At least vampires can fly and have the courage to profess their love, even though it’s repulsive. The idea of dictators sucking the general public’s blood is too on the nose to be explored. There is a segment in the film where the nun acts as an accountant, trying to find out about Pinochet’s wealth. This is where the film seemed to not know what to do with Pinochet and this novel idea of him being a vampire. The film rushes through witty dialogue that keeps on coming, with no respite.
The landscape, the music, and the cinematography are stamped by Larrain’s eye for detail. He wants to make us feel the dread of being left on a desolate planet where death seems like the only escape from the constant bickering and infidelity. The politics being discussed as metaphors and allusions grow tiresome after a while because there is absolutely no warmth in anyone. Dictators have charm, which is why the public supports them. It’s not the obvious vampirism that anybody is attracted to, but something good they confuse with competence. The film wants us to wince at the vile nature of the Count but fails to show his charisma. There are sequences where the bent Pinochet lustfully exchanges pleasantries with the nun, but apart from that, the film fails to deceive us with his charm. We are deceived by dictators, aren’t we? Here, we know from the beginning that the Count is a brutal fellow, and the justification is that he is not human. He is absolved by his vampirism. What can the Church or the public do now?
The voiceover continues, and it is only in the third act that we get to see it personified. El Conde begins with an idea so sure of itself that it doesn’t seem to find an ending befitting its provocation. It does so only with increased gore and brutality, which fails to command intrigue after a while. The film may ruin blenders for some of you. El Conde is a political allegory whose layers will fully reveal themselves to you if you are familiar with Chilean history. As a satire on dictators and vampirism, it loses its humorous fangs quite early and becomes an overstretched family drama. Pinochet, played by Jaime Vadell, fits the part perfectly, and it seems he can bring a twinkle to his eyes on command. The rest of the cast is Larrain’s way of bringing out his metaphors regarding the dictatorship. His point is that Pinochetism and all other forms of dictatorship will stay youthful. Meanwhile, all we can do is make pomegranate juice in our blenders to keep us healthy because we can’t drink what vampires do now, can we? We don’t have the heart for it.