‘El Conde’ Venice Film Festival 2023 Review: A Gory Political Satire with No Bite
Vampires have maintained a consistent foothold in culture, looming over genres with their hunched physique, cloaked in fearsome mystery. Their mythos has been framed and reframed, dominating cultural conversations and hanging ominously in the corner, waiting to pounce at the chance to provoke further attention. Somehow, though, El Conde catches vampires in a new and garish light, ugly and intoxicating; all of the emblems of vampirism defrosted and blended together.
Augusto Pinochet’s (Jaime Vadell) fabricated life story is immediately laid out in stark detail through voiceover, broken into bite-sized sections that are scattered throughout history. The voiceover reports his long list of misdeeds, stretching back to the French Revolution, and touching uprisings across the globe with his blood-stained grasp, finally landing in Chile where he ruled and plundered with deadly abandon. From there the film drags the audience into his grey, ominously barren hut where he resides, exiled from his country, and clad in fur. Ambling forward, the film then lurches into different genres, bizarrely merging different filmic styles into one gory, occasionally rapturous, mess.
Pablo Lorraín has developed a reputation for merging the fictional and the biographical into pure spectacle, crafting something that relies on recognizable symbols before spinning into the unknown. His biopics Jackie and Spencer drew both affection and ire for their unwillingness to adhere to the facts of someone’s life, relishing in the painful melodrama of these women’s real lives. What ensues is usually a loose, meditative poem on the ramifications of fame. In this sense, El Conde serves Lorraín’s strengths, using Pinochet’s stature in Chilean politics to carve out an epic, disjointed fable on an individual’s cruel and lasting impact.
But El Conde is more off-kilter than either Jackie or Spencer, built to divide filmgoers and upend their expectations. When the film works best, it lets the broader comedic beats reverberate around the ensemble. In a particularly funny (if lengthy) scene, nun-slash-accountant-slash-vampire-slayer Carmencita (Paula Luchsinger) is interviewing Pinochet’s money-hungry children on their family history. Their blatant disinterest in his maniacal striving or waning health is spotlighted in ridiculous ways, a brazen kaleidoscope of evil, caught in Luchsinger’s wonderfully bright, direct delivery.
Satire is saddled with the unenviable task of weighing down a jokey concept with a real story. Lorraín struggles to ground El Conde in anything honest, which could be excusable were the film’s political commentary more potent. Instead, the plot twists roll into one another, frictionless and baffling, eliciting joyful gasps before the plot coils in on itself, frustrating anything going forward with the previous reveal’s slipperiness.
There is a moment late into El Conde that feels singular in the movie’s tonally tangled web. Carmencita flies, unsteady and then balletic as she swims through the grey sky. It is an image so ill at ease with the film that precedes and follows, suddenly reminding audiences of the rich potential in mining vampiric lore. In some of its more gruesome deaths, the film is similarly jolted forward by a reminder of such possibility, before being saddled with its own frustratingly weightless takes on fascism.
Luckily Jaime Vadell and the supporting cast are wonderfully present, lending this story some gravitas. They catch every plot twist and skilfully adapt to it, bouncing darkly funny one-liners around with aplomb and using near-perfect comic timing to draw out the best of a script both striving to say too much and failing to say anything near enough. In El Conde, blood drenches every character, but the film’s bite is dulled by its frequently misdirected comedy.
In El Conde, blood drenches every character, but the film’s bite is dulled by its frequently misdirected comedy.