Should you ever find yourself bitten and transformed into an eternal creature with a taste for vital fluids, know that a smoothie made from liquified human hearts straight from the chest of an unsuspecting victim—a hearty beverage, if you will—does wonders for your undead body. At least that’s part of the lore in Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s sharp-toothed satire “El Conde,” where his country’s most abominable monster, ruthless dictator Augusto Pinochet (Jaime Vadell), takes the form of a centuries-old vampire condemned to live forever in hiding after faking his death to avoid facing deserved punishment.
An almost fairytale-like English-language voiceover (the reason for this choice will later be revealed) drives this grimly amusing account, first chronicling the malevolent escapades that Pinochet, then under a different name, enjoyed during the years leading up to the French Revolution. Moving along through history around the globe, always siding with the oppressive elite and actively destabilizing any left-leaning movements, he nourished not only his urge for blood but also his predilection for fascism. Pinochet has amassed a collection of morbid relics from his storied travels, including Napoleon’s hat and Marie Antoinette’s head. Production designer Rodrigo Bazaes fabricates his isolated lair with a strikingly lived-in authenticity; every item appears to have endured the passage of time.
It’s all wrapped in the alluring timelessness of cinematographer Edward Lachman’s stark black-and-white images, at their most arresting when a shadowy figure in full military regalia takes flight like a literal batman over a seaside city. Turning still beating organs into a pulp—with the help of some powerful blenders—the flying killer (maybe Pinochet himself?) takes the lives of a few random people to feast on their elixir, his meal prep comically undercutting his mythical magnetism. Though beautifully silhouetted, the feeding process becomes something horrifically quotidian, no different in practical use from an office worker chugging a protein shake in the morning.
News of the gruesome hunt, which has now made headlines, alarms Pinochet’s middle-aged children, a pack of greedy but listless individuals desperate to ensure their placid, entitled lifestyles remain undisturbed even if their patriarch wants to vanish. Concerned, they make the trek to Dad’s secret home to learn about his finances and future plans. Larraín and co-writer Guillermo Calderón lean into their idiotic squabbles and self-serving preoccupations over the family’s finances for some of the script’s most acerbic, laugh-out-loud lines.
Vadell, a regular of Larraín’s outings, plays the blood-drinking Pinochet with an infuriatingly charming obliviousness as if he wasn’t aware of his own villainy. He no longer wants to live after being called a thief. Meanwhile, Fyodor (Alfredo Castro), the general’s most loyal weasel and a picture of depraved solitude, professes a disturbing admiration for all the atrociousness the former leader symbolizes. Castro’s versatility from one film to the next never ceases to astound. As part of this ensemble, whether beheading an enemy or begrudgingly dragging luggage wearing an ushanka, he’s a bonafide scene-stealer.
Using gallows humor and a flare for the grotesque, Larraín strips the old murderer of any sanctimonious virtue he may want to cling to. While impunity remains a harsh truth, there’s a morbid joy in seeing a fictionalized Pinochet realize history will forever shame him and that he no longer has a say in how he is perceived. Not that he has much of a conscience, but comedy emanates from how he still acts like a winner when he reeks of irrelevance in a decrepit body. This Pinochet doesn’t care to admit he took many lives but rejects the accusations he stole from the Chilean institutions. How could he possibly have done that if he only got what so righteously belonged to him? He thinks.
To sort it all out, Carmen (Paula Luchsinger Escobar), a young nun, is tasked with helping the family take stock of their assets with the utmost confidentiality. Luchsinger Escobar radiates a kooky effervescence in her eagerness to learn all the abhorrent details from Pinochet’s children and his equally as perverse wife, Doña Lucia (Gloria Münchmeyer). Carmen’s presence prompts a marital dispute since she and Pinochet get romantically entangled à la Edward a Bella sans the youthful appearance. A shot of the religious woman levitating in pure ectasis, as if ascending into her beatification, resembles the forceful grace of Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” with a hint of deviant sensuality.
If in both “Jackie” and “Spencer,” the director attempts to return emblematic women to the humanity that public opinion tried to deny them, here the hope is to render the dictator a pathetic parasite, acting solely out of self-preservation. “El Conde” calls to mind Larraín’s other biting title about monsters living in seclusion from society, “The Club” (where Vadell also had a tole), about pedophilic Catholic priests brewing in their privileged isolation. Just like Pinochet, their transgression went unpunished. In “El Conde,” the Church is also taken to task for its collaboration with the perpetrators. But the fangs of this new film don’t puncture as deeply—its farcical tone goes for stylistic gustiness rather than a more meditative approach to its sociopolitical and historical foundation.
This wickedly funny, blood-soaked portrait of a decaying tyrant hits streaming on the week of the 50th anniversary of Pinochet’s coup against President Allende. Larraín offers no false hopes about eradicating the ideologies that allowed it to happen and last. Instead, he warns that evil never truly perishes—it just transforms to poison new minds.
Now playing on Netflix.