27 Sep 2023

Review: El Conde

From At The Movies, 7:30 pm on 27 September 2023

El Conde is a reminder of the one advantage fiction has over non-fiction. The endings are so much better.  

In real life, the worst villains often lead long, happy lives, revelling in their ill-gotten gains.   Only in fiction can a monster like Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet get anything like his just desserts.

That seems to be the rationale behind a film by Chilean director Pablo Larraín. 

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Photo: Netflix, Inc

Since the justice system failed so abjectly – Pinochet died before he could be charged with thousands of murders and millions of stolen dollars – El Conde could at least trash his memory.  

El Conde means “The Count” and the premise of the movie is that Pinochet is in fact a 250 year-old equivalent of another criminal aristocrat, Count Dracula. 

That’s right, he’s a vampire.  Not just a vampire, but one who’s faked his own death, and could easily live another 250 years.

In this he’s assisted by his equally corrupt wife, Lucia – El Conde suggests she was even worse than Pinochet – and a sinister Russian butler, who’s been rewarded for his service by being made a vampire too. 

The frustrated Mrs Pinochet remains mortal for some reason.

You’ll have to get used to that expression “for some reason”. El Conde is a bleakly comic fable, but its plotline is hardly limited by any sense of logic.

At the start, Pinochet decides he’s sick of living.  He summons his family, presumably to dish out some of those ill-gotten gains.

But it seems he’s more concerned about his legacy. He doesn’t mind being reviled as a mass murderer, but it’s embarrassing to be called a mere thief.   

It was all, he says, an accounting mistake.

Which is why they’ve brought in an attractive young accountant to tidy up his affairs.  

What the family doesn’t realise is that Carmencita is in fact a Catholic nun, charged by the Church to exorcise any devils in the Pinochet household.

Pablo Larraín’s previous films were mostly fact-based drama, rather than fictionalised allegory.  He made Spencer about Princess Diana, Jackie about Jackie Onassis and a smart docu-drama called No, about the actual downfall of Pinochet.

But El Conde is downright peculiar – not least in its choice of narrator.

It’s told by Margaret Thatcher – in English – offering new, and extremely unlikely reasons why she was always such a keen supporter of Pinochet.

But at least she remains consistent in the film.  Unlike nun/exorcist/accountant Carmencita.

One minute she’s polishing the silver hammers, stakes and holy water, next she’s taking sides with Pinochet against his family.

Meanwhile Pinochet, smitten by the lovely Carmencita, decides he does want to stick around now, and takes regular blood-sucking trips to town. A vampire has to live, after all.

El Conde actually picked up a Best Script award at the recent Venice Film Festival, possibly for good intentions rather than actual achievement.  Unlike Carmencita, I found the Count’s appeal rather elusive.

But possibly it worked better with a Chilean audience. After 17 years of the real Pinochet, they probably needed a laugh.

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