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El Conde (2023) Review

What if Augusto Pinochet, Chile’s notorious dictator, was a vampire? What if—after hiding for centuries to escape punishment for his crimes against humanity—that vampire was ready to die, but not before his children stage a hilarious fight over how to split up their father’s ill-gotten wealth? This is the premise of Pablo Larraín’s latest black comedy horror. It’s clear the Chilean director’s intention was to remove the power Pinochet’s legacy still carries, treating the genocidal fascist as a pathetic relic of the past. After all, making someone the butt of the joke is the best way to strip away their mystique. While I think the intent was admirable, the visuals undeniable, there was a big problem with the writing that ultimately stopped the film from realizing its full potential.

Cinematographer Edward Lachman deserves a lot of credit for what he did with this movie. I’ve seen a lot of reviews comment on the production design, which was great, but the way Lachman paints with light infuses the movie with a kind of humanity and drama that builds a world of its own (particularly in scenes where Pinochet flies over the city). The use of light is further strengthened by the choice to shoot in black and white, giving the images a certain texture that matches the fairytale tone created by the voiceover. This monochromatic palette also emphasizes the light vs dark dichotomy that becomes thematically relevant when a nun arrives to bring Pinochet to justice. In these moments, Sofia Subercaseaux’s editing creates a great pace that makes awesome use of contrast, placing certain images in sequences that are reminiscent of the Soviet montage method. As the nun interviews Pinochet’s entitled, listless children, Lachman plays with the camera’s perspective in a way that emphasizes the use of humor throughout. These technically perfect visuals were accentuated by some phenomenal acting.

Frequent Larraín collaborator, Jaime Vadell, does a wonderful job as Pinochet, oblivious as to why he’s so hated. While the film is definitely centered around Vadell’s performance, Alfredo Castro’s portrayal of Fyodor, Pinochet’s lackey, ultimately steals the show for me. Castro’s ruthless admiration of his General calls back to some of the most iconic sidekicks in the horror genre, especially reminding me of Igor from Frankenstein (1931). That being said, no amount of great acting, or even stunning visuals, can make up for what I consider to be lackluster writing.

This movie has issues similar to Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness: Larraín and co-scriptwriter Guillermo Calderón seem to have gotten lost in the satire. Instead of really taking the genocidal fascist to task, or exploring what his legacy means for contemporary Chile, a lot of the runtime is focused on capturing funny moments between Pinochet’s family and friends as they all vie for power and money. I get it, the ruling class is petty and self-serving. In 2023, this feels like a lukewarm progressivism at best; with so many great tools at his disposal, I just wish Larraín would have invested screen time in telling us something we didn’t already know.

Overall, I think this movie is worth a watch. It’s funny, biting, and I think its politics are ultimately pretty accessible. Sure, it didn’t go as deeply as I’d have liked (this doesn’t hold a candle to Spencer or The Club) but if you’re looking for a movie to stream this week, it might as well be this Netflix original! If you enjoyed this review, consider subscribing to the blog’s Patreon by clicking here! For just $3 per month, you can keep this blog ad-free and independent. There are also some cool benefits for those who choose to support the blog including: suggesting which movies I review, getting personalized movie recommendations, access to free giveaways and more!

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