There are some movies that, via conception, feel like creatively taking their idea to the breaking point. El Conde (2023), which reimagines a real-life dictator as a two-and-a-half-century-old vampire, feels like one of those ideas that could sound immeasurably cute and hilarious. And to give credit to director Pablo Larrain and co-writer Guillermo Calderon, there are ample amounts of black comedy, with the tone stubbornly sticking to a farcical one. However, looking at Larrain’s filmography reveals Pinochet as, perhaps unknowingly, a strong connective tissue. Thus, this satire strangely feels like Larrain’s final say on a dictator whose worldview had impacted the filmmaker throughout his career.
Augusto Jose Ramon Pinochet (November 25, 1915–December 10, 2006) was a Chilean general and dictator who had been in power as the ruler of Chile from 1973–1990. Having risen to power through the ranks of the Chilean army to become the General Chief of Staff under the offices of President Salvador Allende in 1972, Pinochet took control through the 1973 Coup D’etat, after which he served as the head of the leader of the Military Junta from 1973 to 1981. He was declared President of the Republic in 1974, became the de facto dictator of Chile, and became the de jure President from 1981 to 1990 after creating a new constitution.
Pinochet’s reign is characterized by the persecution of leftists, socialists, and political critics, the execution of almost 3000 of his critics, the internment of at least 8000, and the torture of double that number. The forced disappearances of critics of the Chilean government were at an all-time high during that time. The Pinochet government had also been known for banning trade unions and privatizing social security and hundreds of state-owned enterprises.
It led to the sale of these enterprises below market price to private owners who are politically connected, most notably Pinochet’s son-in-law. High economic inequality as a result of these practices led to the 1982 monetary crisis in Chile. As economic inequality grew tenfold, Pinochet’s wealth grew exponentially through secret bank accounts held abroad, money earned through kickbacks, real estate, and embezzlement from arms deals.
According to the 1980 constitution, Pinochet’s presidency had been given a legal framework. According to the transitory powers in the constitution, a referendum had been held in 1988 to vote on a new eight-year presidential term for Pinochet. Confronted with increasing opposition, Pinochet legalized the presence of political parties in his government in 1987 and called for a vote to stay as president till 1997.
On September 5, 1987, political advertising was made legal as a crucial component of the “NO” campaign in the referendum. This campaign was launched in opposition to the official one, which hinted at a return to a Popular Unity government if Pinochet was defeated. The Opposition organized a vibrant and upbeat campaign with the tagline La alegra ya viene (“Joy is coming”) under the umbrella of the Concertación de Partidos por el NO (“Coalition of Parties for NO”).
On October 5, 1988, the “no” option won with 55.99% of the votes. Consequently, Pinochet tried to rally an auto-coup to seize power, even organizing his old junta and trying to convince them to give him extraordinary powers to seize the presidency. However, Air Force General Fernando Matthei refused, becoming the first member of his junta to publicly acknowledge that Pinochet had lost the plebiscite. Pinochet was thus forced to accept this result.
Per the 1980 constitution, Pinochet continued to serve as a senator for life. However, in London in 1988, Pinochet was arrested under an international warrant for numerous human rights violations. He would be released on the grounds of ill health following a lengthy legal battle on March 3, 2000. In 2004, he was deemed medically fit to stand trial and was kept under house arrest. By the time of his arrest on December 10, 2006, he was believed to have almost 300 pending cases of tax fraud and embezzlement and had amassed an amount of almost 28 million dollars.
El Conde (2023) Plot Summary & Movie Synopsis:
In the fictional retelling of Augusto Pinochet’s life, Pinochet grows up in an orphanage in France as Claude Binoche, where he learns of his taste for blood while being an officer in Louis XVI’s army. During the French Revolution, the guillotine held a special, perverted place in Binoche’s heart. After the beheading of Queen Marie Antoinette, his special fetish becomes licking the blood off of the pillory.
After taking part in various revolutions, he married Lucia Hiriart, settled in Chile, and thus rewrites the history of how he came into power by staging the coup d’état of 1973 and becoming president. According to this newer “retconned history,” due to the levy of charges being pressed against him, Pinochet decided to die by stopping drinking blood for a couple of months, effectively starving himself and “dying” in public consciousness in 2006. In “reality,” he, his trusted servant Fyodor, and his wife retired to a property outside the cityscapes of Chile, where he would live for two more decades.
As the movie opens, we see a vampire hunting old ladies and blue-collar workers in Chile while a bored voice-over describes the best methods and parts of the body as the fleshy parts of the human body for a vampire to exist. Worried that their father might have begun hunting again, the “Count” Pinochet’s children, Luciana, Mercedes, Jacinta, Anibal, and Manuel, reconvene at their father’s house. They have also gathered because the old immortal has finally decided to die and, after two centuries, and has decided to divide his property. But before that, he needs to have a look through his portfolio, and thus, he has called for an accountant.
Unbeknownst to him, the accountant is Carmencita, an exorcist hired by the Catholic Church to finally destroy the vampire once and for all. Carmencita is depicted as someone determined to carry out her duty because her heart is with God, and she would kill the vampire either by exorcising the vampire’s soul or by driving a stake through his heart.
It is also made evident via the voiceover that while the kids know about Ausgustus’ vampirism, they are unaware of his bloody past. Also, Pinochet has forbidden himself from turning his children into vampires, preferring they live a ripe mortal life. The kids, however, have been waiting for their father to die for years so that they could finally live off his ill-gotten gains.
Meanwhile, Fyodor and Lucia have been having an affair for years, and Lucia has tried to locate the details of Pinochet’s wealth and thus get to them before the children ever could, but to no avail. On the other hand, Fyodor had been one of the Count’s trusted servants, and to reward him for his loyalty, he had turned him into a vampire. To finally ensure that his master can crave and attain the death he deserves, Fyodor devises the plan of killing and stealing the beating hearts of innocent blue-collar workers so that his children can band together to kill their father because Fyodor, through the hierarchical rule of master and apprentice, couldn’t take the step of killing his master on his own.
They did not anticipate Carmencita being a nun sent to kill El Conde. Through her wiles, Carmencita manages to learn all about the crooked dealings of the count’s children and how they have been benefiting from his wealth for years. Carmen is also an excellent mathematician, adept at her job, and thus has been able to calculate the total amount of wealth accumulated by the count. However, her secret desire had also been to cross the paths of Satan and show him God’s glory. Indirectly, she gives in to the vampiric allure of Pinochet.
Similarly, Pinochet is attracted by Carmencita’s beauty and starts “working out,” drinking the smoothies from the frozen hearts that are stored in the basement of the mansion. He even tries to ask himself into Carmencita’s room, as vampires cannot enter anyone’s room without permission. But makes a fool of himself when he falls flat on the ground. Carmencita, too, shuts the door in his face because (we believe) she is still contemplating what she wants to do.
However, we see the count slowly trying to fly and start hunting again to regain some of his youth and seduce the young nun. Much to the displeasure of Fyodor and Lucia, Pinochet starts an affair with Carmencita, ending with her becoming a vampire while consummating. That is when she tastes true freedom, leading to a gorgeous sequence of her learning to fly and her flying over the gorgeous countryside. It is also hilarious that the Count finally regains his will to live and christens his newly found love for Carmen when suddenly the bored British voice, which had been the deadpan voiceover for the movie, reveals herself in the third act.
El Conde (2023) Movie Ending Explained:
The Third Act Reveal
An old British woman named Margaret used to be a seasonal worker in the vineyards of Marseilles. There she would be raped by one of the sailors named “Strigoi” (Greek for vampire) and bitten. Margaret later finds Strigoi and impales him with a wooden stake. But after giving birth to her child on February 25, 1776, she leaves the child in an orphanage. Years later, Margaret would cross the English Channel and travel to the shores of Britain, where she would meet Denis Thatcher and later become the Prime Minister of Britain. Yes, the mother of vampire Augusto Pinochet is revealed to be “The Iron Lady,” Margaret Thatcher. Apparently, she had been keeping a watch on her son for a very long time. But this affair had been the ultimate last straw, forcing Margaret to reveal herself and order Pinochet to kill Carmen
Pinochet refuses and instead takes Carmen up to his boudoir, where it is revealed that he kept the heads of famous women who had struck his fancy. To consummate his fetish, he dresses Carmen up in a manner similar to Marie Antoinette and shows her Antoinette’s head, which he had kept unvarnished by dipping it in ammonia. However, by that point, Carmen had lost her patience and revealed the stake with which she intended to impale him. Pinochet brings out his knife in retaliation.
Here’s the thing: while the Catholic Church wanted the specter of Pinochet removed from the world, they also wanted a piece of Pinochet’s ill-gotten gains. Thus, Carmen rushes back to her room, collecting the bonds she had located and stealing from Pinochet’s cellar. Meanwhile, amidst all the confusion, Fyodor had finally managed to turn Lucia into a vampire so that she could also kill Pinochet and Margaret. While Carmen tries to escape, Fyodor, who had been built up throughout the movie as a dangerous entity, perhaps even more dangerous than Pinochet himself, catches up with Carmen and kills her by – hilariously, like Pinochet’s first crush, Marie Antoinette – the guillotine.
Lucia is killed by a sword drawn through her chest for her betrayal. On the other hand, Fyodor is given a bit more respect for embracing his death. He gets the full wrath of Pinochet as he is killed by beheading with a saw. Nevertheless, the kids don’t get to retaliate against anyone. Regaining his will to live, Pinochet and Margaret Thatcher make smoothies of the hearts of the vampires, Fyodor and the recently turned Lucia, which rejuvenate them to their youthfulness.
While the kids try to sell off some of the memorabilia of Pinochet, Pinochet, and Margaret have been storing rare memorabilia throughout the long lives they have led: the letters of Napoleon written to his brother, the first copy of Mein Kampf, and hilariously, Chile’s Declaration of Independence. As the movie turns to color, we see Margaret Thatcher as a middle-aged woman taking her son, a presumably cherubic Pinochet, to her school as they restart a new life with newer rejuvenation to propagate their fascism and vampirism.
Pablo Larrain and Augusto Pinochet – The Thematic Connections
Pablo Larrain’s Chilean Trilogy
“El Conde” isn’t Larrain’s first rodeo dealing with the Pinochet rule in Chile. His 2008 film “Tony Monero” follows Raul Peralta, a John Travolta lookalike dancer in a run-down cabaret, who embarks on a quest to win a “Tony Manero” lookalike contest broadcast on Chilean television during the height of the “Saturday Night Fever” craze. The 1977 film was released in Chile in 1978, during the height of Pinochet’s rule, and shows Peralta’s craze and, through that lens, the darkness of that era and the politics of Pinochet’s rule, with every man for himself mentality coming fully to the fore.
It is especially nuanced because of the fandom surrounding Saturday Night Fever, a quintessentially American product borne from the country responsible for overthrowing Allende and installing Pinochet in power.
His 2012 film “Post Mortem” follows the life of a quiet file clerk at the mortuary, where bodies are piling up during the bloody coup d’etat of 1973 when Augusto Pinochet seized power from Salvador Allende. Amidst the bloody carnage in the streets of Santiago and the sounds of gunfire, the psychological implications of Mario are much more in focus in this queasy, mordant, funny little film. Taken as a duology, both Tony Manero and Post Mortem show Larrain’s interest in the exploration of intimate details during the turbulent time of Pincohet’s rule.
The desperation and ugliness of that era are showcased through Larrain’s own methodology of shooting the film in saturated colors. The character of Mario and his propensity to be non-empathetic towards the abject cruelty showcased by the military is in sharp contrast to his own interest in his neighbor Nancy and her ideology of Allende, which is completely upended.
His 2012 film “No,” starring Gael Garcia Bernal, is the more upbeat one of the trilogy, following a dramatized retelling of the 1988 plebiscite, which had finally been responsible for ending the Pinochet presidency and installing democracy in Chile. Again, like his first two movies in the trilogy, this follows a character who believes themselves to be apolitical, believing that the politics of the time wouldn’t affect their beliefs. Still, as it turns out, it definitely does, in minute or maximalist ways. “No” was especially potent because it focused on the political advertisement and the positive energy that resulted from democratization actually becoming an act of normalcy in a country where dictatorship had been prevalent.
The recontextualization of the biopic by Pablo Larrain
Interestingly, El Conde also connects with another movie in Larrain’s filmography, that being the 2021 movie Spencer, about a day in the life of Princess Diana. Spencer was notable for taking the biopic structure and recontextualizing it in a haunted mansion setting. While not exactly a satire, it was a very potent and empathetic look at Diana. Larrain also focused a lot on atmospherics through locations and opened spaces to emphasize the dread and futility that Diana faces in “Spencer.”
“El Conde” serves both needs, however. It unintentionally, or perhaps intentionally, becomes Larrain’s final say on the Pinochet era. While “The Chilean Trilogy” had focused on the intimate setting through the eyes of apolitical protagonists affected by Pinochet’s regime, Larrain now chooses to focus on the man himself, Augusto Pinochet, and watch the world through his eyes and the actions through the context of the man. Except it’s not that simple.
Because Larrain had already explored genre intersection through a biopic setting, in El Conde, he chooses to take the biopic and instead invert it into a “what-if” question. A reimagination, if you will, of the fascistic dictator being a vampire for over 200 years, ever since the dawn of the French Revolution, and responsible for being the dictator of a country because, in the words of the “unseen” narrator, a country not really notable is prime real estate for sucking the life out of, both literally and figuratively.
Fascism as Vampirism and the Tendrils of Evil
In recontextualizing Augusto Pinochet as a literal vampire, Larrain hilariously and cheekily portrays fascism as literally sucking the lifeblood out of a country’s soul. The presence of Pinochet in modern times as a vampire, preying on blue-collar workers and older women, shows how fascism and evil prey on the weak and the dependent, seducing them and robbing them of their power. The church sending an exorcist but also being interested in Pinochet’s wealth shows the duplicitous nature of the church and religion.
While it is an obvious commentary in a movie dealing with vampires, the duplicitous nature of the church and religion in context to the economic conditions of a country, as well as leading a country through the facets of faith, is questioned here. Even the most faithful and determined of God’s servants get seduced by the evil and allure of the vampire, as evidenced by Carmencita’s fall, perhaps denoting Eve’s actual seduction through the forbidden fruit, here literally sucking the blood out.
Pinochet and Thatcher – Fascism through the ages
It could be argued that Larrain’s connection between Thatcher and Pinochet, as the proverbial mother and son, might come off as cute. It is also one of those pivots that genuinely jumped out due to Thatcher supporting Pinochet during his political trial in reality. Connecting Thatcher and Pinochet through that lens lends credence to the farcical element of the film. It also adds to the extremely bored, deadpan tenor of Thatcher’s voiceover throughout the film.
This is a woman whose classism secretes from every part of her body, and because of her longevity as a vampire, there is an inherent disinterest in human emotions and greed. She only chooses to make her appearance when Pinochet finally decides to consummate with Carmen, leading to the domino effect.
The movie’s ending also stubbornly refuses to let go of the farcical tone of the film and yet doesn’t skimp on the messaging. It cheekily reminds the viewers how both ends of the ideological and political spectrum still believe in some of Pinochet’s ideology. Some still believe that Pinochet’s rule was one of the most significant moments in Chile’s history of prosperity. As Thatcher and Pinochet in this movie’s world continue to live on, it’s almost a warning that ideologies never die and fascistic tendencies never really go away; they just evolve with the times and take on a new form.
The one overarching theme throughout Pablo Larrain’s Chilean Trilogy, which also extends to “El Conde,” is a lack of empathy within or towards the protagonists. The politics and policies of the Pinochet regime—a semi-fascist one—lead to depicting that absence, either through a farcical lens or a self-serious lens. It is perhaps inevitable that Larrain would ultimately tackle Pinochet himself.
The fact that he uses a farcical lens to show Pinochet is due to his stubborn refusal to show any form of empathy towards Pinochet himself, his progeny, or his immediate family. Even the exorcist, arguably the one we are supposed to root for because she is the thorn supposed to set the vampire free, gets pulled into the allure of the power anyway.
“El Conde” takes a “fictionalized biographical account” and turns it on its head. Via “Spencer,” Larrain had already experimented with the conventional biopic structure. “El Conde” becomes more of a genre exercise, a “what if” experiment pushed to its breaking point, a surrealist fantasy unsubtly commenting on very real issues.
As a result, the humor might come off as more amusing than clever. However, some of the most humourous aspects of “El Conde” come from its plotting and the pivots it takes within the plotting itself. The characters thus become serviceable to the plot, even if we wish to remain within the gorgeously monochromatic rendition of evil that Larrain so deliciously creates with his co-writer.
It doesn’t work at times. The provocation resulting from the final act’s revelation feels unnecessarily cute, while the resolution feels more rushed. However, the movie never loses sight of its tone, so it never shies away from being blackly comic. There is no tragedy here, only the circuitous nature of evil and human greed, and even if Pinochet is no more in reality, his ideas still persist.
“El Conde” isn’t for everyone, but it isn’t a deviation from Larrain’s filmography either. On the contrary, it feels like an evolution as well as a logical coda to what Larrain had wanted to say about Pinochet.