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El Conde - The brilliant yet alienating portrayal of Pinochet as a Gothic monster

Sunday 24 September 2023, by Simón Díaz-Cuffin

Chilean Dictator Augusto Pinochet returns from the grave as a depressed immortal vampire living off of blood and impunity. Chile’s infamous dictator Augusto Pinochet returns from the grave in Pablo Larraín’s latest unconventional biopic, El Conde (2023). Premiered in Venice just in time for the 50th anniversary of the US-backed military coup spearheaded by Pinochet in 1973, the film aims to satirise his public figure yet falters when trying to reflect on the enduring legacy of impunity inherited by the 17-year long regime. Reimagined as a 250-year-old vampire who faked his own death in 2006, Pinochet (portrayed by Jaime Vadell) is tired of being called a thief rather than a murderer and wants to die once and for all. Hidden away in an isolated Patagonian mansion, he’s surrounded by his wife Lucía Hiriart (Gloria Münchmeyer), who refuses to let him die, and a not-so-loyal henchman Fyodor Krassnoff (Alfredo Castro). The plot takes off when Pinochet’s money-grabbing descendents pay a visit to secure their inheritance, accompanied by an undercover nun and accountant Carmencita (Paula Luchsinger) tasked with organising the family’s dark money, as well as murdering the Count himself.

This farcical Dracula-style monster story, co-written with frequent collaborator Guillermo Calderón, sets up a potentially powerful allegory of Pinochet’s bloody reign, which was part of a wider wave of military dictatorships supported by the US in the 1970’s that murdered, disappeared, tortured and exiled thousands. By portraying a vampire who is equally avaricious as he is bloodsucking, Larraín defies the heroic image adored by far-right Pinochet supporters. In this vein, the narrative is packed with references that acknowledge his financial corruption and murderous reign, with allusions to his multiple bank accounts created under false names such as “Daniel Lopez”, as well as the direct reference to his henchman Krassnoff, named after real-life Miguel Krassnoff, a military official sentenced to more than a 1000 years imprisonment for torturing and murdering during the dictatorship.

The stark monochrome contrast found in each frame imbues this tale of murder and betrayal with an equally dark atmosphere, highlighted by harsh tones and nightmarish shadows. In the tradition of German expressionist horror, seen in films like Nosferatu (1922), El Conde is masterfully filmed by veteran cinematographer Ed Lachman (The Limey, I’m Not There, Carole). The long, sharp cape which Pinochet wears with pride creates a haunting image, as he glides over Santiago and strides towards his victims. This imagined alternative reality inhabited by the dictator aids Larraín’s metaphor, bringing forth the horror and decadence that surrounds his figure and still looms over Chile.

However, in the current context where far-right politicians in Chile have come out of the woodwork to defend the dictatorship, it is important to note the legacy of Pinochet is not so much about his personal financial profiteering or his lust for blood. Pinochet, like many other dictators in the region, were enabled by a larger network of local elites, in collaboration with the CIA and the State Department, who remain in positions of power until today. More than military henchmen like Krassnoff or Pinochet’s money grabbing children, the businessmen, politicians, media barons and civilians who supported the dictatorship, and remain prominent in Chilean society, are his tangible legacy. Figures such as far-right presidential candidate José Antonio Kast, Former President Sebastián Piñera, or even Pablo Larraín’s own father and politician, Hernán Larraín, who fervently defended Paul Schäfer, a known collaborator of the regime and nazi cult leader of the sect “Colonia Dignidad”. These individuals, who worked with Pinochet and remain untouched, represent the true legacy and values of the Chilean dictatorship and its continuity in the present.

On another level, the decision to display Pinochet as a gothic monster, an immortal vampire, is both brilliant and alienating. Joshua Oppenheimer, whilst discussing his documentary The Act of Killing (2012) which depicts the impunity of the murderers behind the Indonesian massacres in the 1960’s, asserts that “they’re not monsters”, on the contrary, to say that “mainly serves to reassure us, that we have nothing to do with these men.” In the case of El Conde, although it is gratifying to view Pinochet as nothing but a corrupt bloodsucking murderer, it also places the audience in a comfortable position that distances them from understanding the more profound reasons behind his legacy 50-years on from the military coup.

Written by Simón Díaz-Cuffin

El Conde is available on Netflix.

El Conde. Direction: Pablo Larraín. Script: Guillermo Calderón y Pablo Larraín. Starring: Jaime Vadell, Gloria Münchmeyer, Alfredo Castro, Paula Luchsinger, Stella Gonet, Antonia Zegers, Amparo Noguera, Diego Muñoz, Marcial Tagle, Catalina Guerra. Director of Photography: Edward Lachman. Art Direction: Tatiana Maulén. Sound Design: Juan Carlos Maldonado. Editor: Sofía Subercaseaux. Production House: Fábula. Ficción. 110 minutos. Chile, 2023.

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