Home #Hwoodtimes EL CONDE: Pablo Larrain’s Religious Fable about General Pinochet as a Vampire

EL CONDE: Pablo Larrain’s Religious Fable about General Pinochet as a Vampire

By Robert St. Martin

On screen at two of the Laemmle Theatres in Los Angeles and coming soon to Netflix is Pablo Larraín’s El Conde (The Count, Chile, 2023). Larraín just received the award for Best Screenplay at the Venice International Film Festival on Sunday. Told in foggy monochrome, El Conde is about a vampire, a creature of the night who has lived since the turn of the 18th century.

General Pinochet (Jaime Vadell) with his wife Lucia (Gloria Munchmeyer)

Having witnessed the fall of the ancient regime and the beheading of Marie Antoinette, Pinochet devotes his life to fighting revolutionaries before settling finally in Chile, where he becomes the supreme dictator, Captain General Augusto Pinochet (played with tired gusto by Jaime Vadell). Here he deposes a democratically elected government, suppresses all political freedom, and tortures and kills any who dare oppose him. With his own reckoning on the horizon, Pinochet fakes his own death and retires to a barracks-like building in the purgatorial marshes of Punta Arenas where he lives with his wife Lucia (Gloria Munchmeyer) and steadfast servant Fyodor (Alfredo Garcia).

Fyodor (Alfredo Garcia), Pinochet’s trusty servant.

Chilean director Pablo Larraín has returned to make a film about his native Chile, after his qualified successes with Jackie (2016) and Spenser (2021). He has been focused on the rich, famous, and powerful in his more recent films, although his career emerged brilliantly with films about the lower classes in Tony Manero (2008), Post Mortem (2010), and The Club (2015). In his No (2012), Larraín provided a fascinating account of the death of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. It is curious that in his most recent film, Larraín had decided to dabble in the horror genre with General Pinochet-as-vampire who can fly and eats the hearts of his unwary victims. Having faked his death, Pinochet (Jaime Vadell), who likes to be called “El Conde,” is hiding out in the crumbling grandeur of his Patagonian lair, hoping for death. This end-of-life ennui is disturbed by his money-grubbing family, not-so-loyal servant (Alfredo Castro) and a comely accountant-nun (Paula Luchsinger), who seems to have stepped out of Dreyer’s silent classic The Passion of Joanne of Arc (1928) as the reincarnation of Maria Falconetti.

Jaime Vadell as the aging vampiric Augusto Pinochet

Larraín’s earlier movies such as Post Mortem, No and The Club are variously about how the gruesome dictator Augusto Pinochet lives on and on in Chile, past his retirement in 1990 and his death in 2006, as so many of Chile’s prosperous classes continue to struggle with their memories of how they did well under his rule. Now Larraín has turned this idea into a Gothic reality by turning Pinochet (Jaime Vadell) into a 250-year-old vampire who came of age as a reactionary bloodsucker in the French military during the Revolution, obsessively loyal to Marie Antoinette, whose head he loots from her grave and carries with him in his personal effects. He drifts across Europe and, as Dracula wound up in Yorkshire, Pinochet arrived in Santiago, Chile, joined its army and rose to grisly prominence in the 1973 coup, whose 50-year anniversary this movie avowedly marks.

He fakes his own death. Even lying in state in a glass coffin, there is a great moment when the corpse’s eyes flicker open. He continues to slake his thirst covertly, drifting drone-like above the teeming city streets, ready to pounce like a black bat. But now he is bored, on the point of starving himself of sanguinary nourishments and finally ending it all. But first, he must settle up with his retinue: his ageing cantankerous wife (Gloria Münchmeyer) and bickering, mediocre grownup children, and his butler, a chillingly reactionary White Russian veteran Fyodor, played by Alfredo Castro. They share some chilling dialogue sequences, as they discuss how much they adored torturing dissidents and looting from the state.

These dependents have also agreed to a forensic inspection of the general’s papers to identify where he has hidden his looted millions so they can get hold of it – and this accountant is also, very bizarrely, a nun (played by Paula Luchsinger) who intends to exorcise him and purify his legacy, just as the Church is arguably doing with Pinochet in the real world. Clearly, one butt of the satire is the continuing power of the Catholic Church in Chile and their involvement in dubious financial arrangements.

General Pinochet on the nighttime prowl in search of human blood

This is no documentary, but a Gothic fantasy with the reductionism of a crazed alternative history but with the energy of a graphic novel. For Larraín, the agony of Chile and the struggle of Chilean people to confront their ugly past is akin to killing vampires. Pablo Larraín’s primary mode is deconstruction, of everything from genre to myth to ideology. The film seeks to dispense with the historical record and imagine what happens behind closed doors. Of course, there’s one important difference here: El Conde is certainly no stickler for verisimilitude, as the Augusto Pinochet (Jaime Vadell) of this film is a morose vampire fasting from blood in order to ease himself into death. And we see plenty of scenes with Pinochet grinding up human hearts in a blender for a quick pick-me-up.

Pinochet’s five children who seek an inheritance

The film renders Pinochet as an aging, ever-prattling child of sorts, who no longer wants to live in a Chile that has no appreciation for all his “great work,” nor deal with some pesky investigations into his massive wealth. With his five children on a visit to try to grab at any inheritance that might come their way, “the Count” (as he is nicknamed) is also visited by a nun named Carmencita in disguise (Paula Luchsinger), who is supposed to be looking over the financial records but is preparing something between an exorcism and a more moral calling to account for the benefit of the Catholic Church. She attempts to rid Pinochet of the devil, since she believes him to be possessed.

Carmencita (Paula Luchsinger), the accountant-exorcist nun

The on-going narration in English by Stella Gonet neatly summarizes, with little variation from one incident to the next, that Pinochet is a literal immortal vampire that must feed off the blood of innocent people to keep living. At the end of the film, we meet the embodiment of this narrative voice and it comes as a bit of a surprise as to who this person actually is. Director Pablo Larraín and co-writer Guillermo Calderón do make their message fairly clear: Pinochet is never going to stop sucking blood out of Chilean citizens, as the country is still experiencing an endless cycle of corruption that will only keep renewing itself throughout the years. And so, Larraín gives us a religious parable where nobody gets redemption. By the time the credits roll, its greedy, selfish protagonists are exactly how they were when we first met them, and we are stuck with them, no matter how hard we try to get rid of them.

Pinochet’s wife and five children

Cinematographer Ed Lachman brings us a world that comes alive in desaturated black-and-white that makes everything feel more surreal and dream-like. The symmetrical sequences of Pinochet flying over Chile at night, his uniform resembling a cape that makes him look like a bat – or “a mix of Nosferatu, Batman, and Superman,” like Larraín’s script reads – are hypnotic, and though he does terrible things as a vampire (on top of those we know him to have done as a human), we can’t help but be fascinated by him. The score (Juan Pablo Ávalo and Marisol García) takes us back in time with classical music imbued with magic realism and a hint of darkness. And we hear the ever-present noise of wind blowing through the windows of Pinochet’s crumbling house in a set of abandoned buildings in Punta Arenas in a graveyard complete with a functional guillotine. This film is a stylistic treasure trove of technical execution coupled with fantastic performances from the entire cast, although its appeal will be with art house aficionados.

General Pinochet as a vampire flying out in search of human hearts to eat