Vampires have long been symbols of the parasitic nobility, but director Pablo Larraín sinks his teeth into the conceit with unusual relish. El Conde is a parodic horror-biopic of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (Jaime Vadell), who, we’re told, is actually an undead, eternal bloodsucker, spending his later years out of power in the south of Chile, surrounded by ungrateful relations waiting for him to die so they can get his money.
The plot, involving a fresh-faced conniving nun/exorcist/accountant named Carmen (Paula Luchsinger) and an improbable cameo by Margaret Thatcher, gets tangled in its own campy fluttering cloaks. But that hardly matters when you get to watch Pinochet, in stark black-and-white, shuffle around his kitchen as he prepares himself a frozen-human-heart smoothy, or lick Marie Antoinette’s blood off the guillotine that killed her.
The satire of Pinochet is gloriously unsubtle; Larraín takes great glee in having various family members and retainers blandly describe the regime’s legacy of theft and murder. But the movie’s most striking scene is an incongruously lyrical set piece. Carmen gains the ability to fly, and in her stumbling maiden voyage goes tumbling and swooping over Pinochet’s retreat, her movements half uncontrolled pinwheel, half ballet. It’s a scene of pure joy, worth more than all the billions spent on the MCU’s crappy CGI, and for a moment it almost makes you think there’s a place, even in a world blighted with Pinochet, of youth and freedom.
That makes it all the more brutal when the old hierarchies reassert themselves, sucking the life from youth and hope; Pinochet’s “life’s work was to turn us all into heroes of greed,” the film muses. Power and money will scoop out your soul, and fascism is very hard to kill. The real Pinochet died in 2006, but those particular truths, unfortunately, live on. R, 110 min.