Movie Review: Pinochet as a vampire in surreal, frightening ‘El Conde’

The Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet is not dead in Pablo Larraín’s “El Conde.” He is instead a 250-year-old vampire living in semi-exile and wishing for death in this audacious allegory about history’s tendency to repeat itself, shot in sublime, otherworldly black and white.

It is fitting that the film, in theaters Friday and on Netflix Sept. 15, is being released around the 50-year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 1973 coup which brought Pinochet to power for almost 17 years. Pinochet’s regime tortured, killed and disappeared 3,065 people in the name of fighting communism, but for some in Chile the legacy is now remembered as not all bad.

Evil ideas, Larraín cautions, have a tendency to live on, to mutate and to infect societies again and again even many years after they’re supposedly dispelled and destroyed. Kind of like vampires living in stark, hellish exile as greedy heirs circulate to try to claim what’s theirs and keep the money flowing.

Larraín, the 47-year-old filmmaker behind “Spencer,” “Jackie” and “No,” has always considered himself a political filmmaker and has already gestured at Pinochet in previous films. In “El Conde,” which he co-wrote, he uses “the language of satire and political farce” to show the world the true nature of a dictator who “never faced true justice,” he said in his director’s statement.

Pinochet stepped down in 1990 after Chileans voted against military rule, only to assume the role of commander-in-chief of the army and, later, the self-created position of lifelong senator until he resigned in 2002. He died in 2006 without being convicted in Chilean courts. That he was not brought to justice is conceived in the film as placing the country in a kind of eternal limbo, doomed to continue suffering at the hands of the General and his disciples.

Jaime Vadell, who is a vibrant 87, plays Pinochet. He flies around Chile like an evil, aging superman, unsure if he wants to hunt or starve himself of blood and let his clock run out. He is world weary but also prideful; He gets especially aggravated when it’s suggested that he’s a thief (murder, he was essentially fine with). Alfredo Castro is his devoted butler, who also hungers for blood. And Gloria Münchmeyer is composed and sinister as his string-wielding wife Lucía, trapped with their mid-age, lazy, entitled offspring as a pretty, young accountant/nun (Paula Luchsinger) attempts to take stock of the general’s assets but also exorcise him. Her character, who masks her shrewdness with a wide-eyed earnestness is styled and shot with nods to Renée Jeanne Falconetti in “The Passion of Joan of Arc.”

“El Conde” is obviously not a history lesson, but information flies at you fast nonetheless. It could rival “His Girl Friday” in words per minute, which can be challenging to process in subtitles but this is where the Netflix of it all comes in handy – the dialogue is so sharp, you don’t want to miss a word. There is also an English-speaking narrator (whose identity will be revealed eventually), giving it a whimsically macabre, storybook feel.

In this fantastical, allegorical nightmare, sense and logic should be the last thing on your mind – especially when engrossed in cinematographer Ed Lachman’s (“Carol,” “The Virgin Suicides”) splendid photography. He apparently shot with a camera made especially for the film (an Arri Alexa Monochrome for anyone interested).

“El Conde” might stretch its gimmicky premise a little past its welcome, but it is an intoxicating, overwhelming and gruesome cinematic experience nonetheless, which would make a fitting double feature with last year's great historical legal thriller “ Argentina 1985.”

“El Conde,” a Netflix release in theaters Friday and streaming on Sept. 15, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for “some graphic nudity, gore, rape, language and sexual content, strong violence.” Running time: 110 minutes. Three stars out of four.