It has been more than a decade since No, Pablo Larraín’s last feature about former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, and the filmmaker returns to the territory with his dark satire El Conde, which receives its world premiere in Venice today (August 31).
The territory was familiar and uncharted. Whereas 2012’s No and the two earlier films in Larraín’s Pinochet trilogy – Tony Manero (2008) and Post Mortem (2010) – steered clear of depicting the tyrant on screen and focused on how his violent rule (1973-1990) bled into the psyche of Chileans, El Conde is something very different.
For the first time Larraín puts Pinochet, who came to power through a military coup 50 years ago and is played here by octogenarian Chilean actor Jaime Vadell, front and centre of the camera. And Larrain has gone further, depicting the dictator as a 250-year-old vampire who finally wants to die.
His 17-year political reign long since ended and unaware of a threat heading his way, Pinochet goes through the motions of a disaffected blood-sucker: he flies solemnly above the country, engorging himself on the blood of strangers. At home in his gothic residence in the southern Chilean hinterland, he tolerates his wife and despicable gaggle of corrupt adult children, who eagerly await the day they can inherit their father’s ill-gotten millions tucked away in international bank accounts.
“I wanted to go straight to him and just do a fucking close-up,” says Larraín from his hotel in Hungary, where the director of Spencer and Jackie has been prepping for his upcoming Maria Callas biopic starring Angelina Jolie. “Nothing oblique… it was necessary to find a way to do it and that’s where the satire and the vampire come in, the black and white, the absurdity, the greed. It was about time to do it.”
Now he’s done it, the vampire conceit makes perfect sense for a monstrous military careerist whose henchmen murdered thousands of dissidents, brutalised tens of thousands more, and sucked the hope out of a country.
“We never put Pinochet on trial”
For Larraín, however, the high concept goes higher. “When I thought how to approach his evil, the idea of a vampire and eternal life came out of his impunity,” Larrain recounts. “Santiago Mitre’s [Oscar-nominated] Argentina, 1985 is a movie about justice and how that country was able to move on because there was a national agreement that this could never happen again and these people should go to jail.”
The filmmaker pauses and stares dolefully into the Zoom camera. “We never put Pinochet on trial. He died a millionaire and free and that lack of impunity made him eternal and has broken my country.”
The idea for the story came during the pandemic. Larraín’s frequent collaborator Guillermo Calderon got writing – initially El Conde was conceived as a miniseries until Netflix’s Latin America head Francisco Ramos suggested they turn the pilot into a feature. “We put these ideas in and the words that came up were ‘vampire’, ‘eternal’, ‘greed’, ‘impunity’.”
Production took place entirely in Chile in the late summer of 2022 with Vadell and a fine cast including Chilean grand dame Gloria Munchmeyer, her daughter Catalina Guerra who plays one of the five grown-up children, and Paula Luchsinger (Ema) as a warrior nun.
Fabula, the Chile-based powerhouse run by Larraín and his brother Juan de Dios Larraín, served as the producer.
Larraín and Calderón situated the formative years of the young vampirical Pinochet in late 18th-century France. “Pinochet’s family were immigrants so Guillermo had the idea that he’d probably be a soldier during the French Revolution,” muses the Chilean filmmaker. And so the devoted royalist trooper experiences first-hand the demise of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, acquiring a distaste for political usurpers and a taste for blood along the way.
The film is awash with Ed Lachman’s atmospheric black-and-white cinematography – Larraín describes Lachman as a “jedi of photography” – and is narrated by a figure from an English-speaking country who pokes fun at Chile’s paternalistic policy and regards the people as peasants. Precisely who this is becomes clear as the film unfolds.
Finding the right tone
Larraín and Calderón worked hard to get the right balance of gore and laughs. “Humour, even satire, has a rhythm,” he says. “It’s about pace and silence and when to speak, and of course it’s about the performances. I think non-Chileans might connect more to the jokes than Chileans, but we tried to stay within a tone that would work for most people.”
They drew inspiration from cinema’s vampire canon, particularly the work of FW Murnau (an early joke already doing the rounds summarises El Conde as “Nosferatu meets Succession”), Francis Ford Coppola and Werner Herzog, as well as Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. “And then you throw a Latin American dictator into the cocktail.”
Larraín was 12 when Pinochet’s 17-year rule ended with the referendum (depicted in No) in 1988 and says he does not remember much of the earlier times. “I lived in a privileged situation and wasn’t exposed to any form of danger,” he says. “I just remember a country that was divided by violence. When I became an adult, I understood that violence was coming from the social class I grew up in.”
Both his parents served under the Liberal Conservative president Sebastian Piñera (years after Pinochet left office) although Larrain says his filmmaking and political perspective have never caused friction within the family.
“It can be very liberating when you make fun of him”
Larraín has spent a sizeable chunk of his career poring over the legacy of Pinochet, who died in 2006 with charges of human rights abuses, embezzlement and tax evasion left unanswered. He says it’s too soon to say whether making El Conde has been a cathartic experience, but he concedes this: “Once you’re able to film him and use the satire as an element, I think it can be very liberating when you make fun of him.”
Pinochet remains a polarising figure among older generations, so what is the mood in Chile ahead of the release?
“As soon as the movie was announced and the trailer was released, some people were saying, How could you shoot Pinochet, it’s not funny,” he says. “Others said it was fantastic. [The subject] is a knife that’s hard to deal with – it’s very sharp and people can react in multiple ways. It’s good that art and cinema can do that. Why not?”
Things are different among young people. “The younger generations are less connected to it,” he says, “but I would think there’s no nostalgia for the Pinochet years and he’s considered in the same way as Hitler and Mussolini and the biggest psychopaths of the last century.”
The lessons of history must never be forgotten, Larraín says, citing the lurch to the right in Argentina, Hungary and Italy, Jair Bolsonaro’s recent leadership in Brazil, and the delicate limbo in Spain following recent elections.
“It’s complicated, because we know that fascism starts with fear and then it moves to violence,” he says. “It’s dangerous, a complicated time, so we have to keep our eyes wide open.”
Following its Venice premiere, El Conde will get a limited theatrical release in the US, UK, Chile, Argentina and Mexico from September 7 and launch on Netflix on September 15.