When, in 2006, General Augusto Pinochet died of natural causes in a suburb of Santiago, at the age of ninety-one, many were dismayed to learn that the brutal dictator—responsible for the disappearance and death of thousands of Chileans—had gotten away with murder. On the day his demise was announced, I heard a guest on a radio talk show say that the general had done some terrific things for the Chilean economy. Only when people who had lost loved ones began calling in to the program did listeners hear about the people who were kidnapped and tortured during his seventeen-year dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s.
Born in Santiago in 1976, three years after the US-sponsored coup that brought Pinochet to power, the filmmaker Pablo Larraín—whose wealthy and politically connected parents supported the conservative regime—grew up during the horrors of the right-wing military government. Many of his films have focused, directly or obliquely, on that history. At the center of Tony Manero (2008) is fifty-two-year-old Raúl, whose determination to win a John Travolta look-alike contest drives him to crime amid the savagery of 1970s Chile. Post Mortem (2010) is set in a Santiago morgue where the workload spikes in the immediate aftermath of the coup that ousted the democratically elected, socialist president, Salvador Allende, whose mangled corpse is brought in to be autopsied. No (2012) tells the true story of a Santiago advertising agency whose TV marketing campaign helped defeat the junta in a plebiscite.
These earlier works evoke the Pinochet era, but, except for a few news clips and snippets of documentary footage, the dictator himself has remained offstage until Larraín’s new film, El Conde, which takes its title from the fact that Pinochet liked to be called “the Count.” El Conde has been billed as a horror-comedy, but it’s more than either, or both, of those genres. It’s a gore-fest, a history lesson, an indictment of Great Britain and the United States, a family inheritance saga like Succession except that Dad has a taste for young virgins. It’s a love story and a meditation on the Catholic Church, on sainthood, on God and the devil, deceit, larceny, and greed.
Brilliantly played by the octogenarian Jaime Vadell, Pinochet—old, exhausted, perpetually grumpy, and onscreen for much of the film—has retired to a rambling and inhospitable rural estancia after faking his death to escape charges of fraud related to the fortune he socked away, allegedly stolen from his country. His long and glorious career is ending in a foggy, sandy, windswept corner of Chile so desolate and barren that (in a way) it’s beautiful, so godforsaken and bleak that (in another way) it’s funny. Rising out of the mists are the general’s version of decorative lawn ornaments: tombstones and an enormous guillotine—still functional, as it turns out.
The central conceit of El Conde, which was cowritten with Guillermo Calderón, is that Pinochet’s bloodthirstiness is literal. He’s not just a loathsome relic but a vampire whose taste for freshly excised hearts (especially those of young women) has kept him alive—that is, undead—for the past 250 years. Now he’s tired and terminally dispirited, shivering beneath his heavy fur coat. His ungrateful country has rejected him. He’s been called a thief, an accusation he finds degrading, though he takes a certain macho pride in having been a soldier and a killer. He wants to die, which he can do only if he stops drinking blood.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Larraín spoke of his determination to prevent viewers from feeling compassion for the dictator:
I think that empathy will always happen when there’s any form of humanity in front of the screen. So in order to avoid it or have the right distance, you need to be very specific with the behavior of that person—it should represent what they did on this planet.
Despite the sly, winning charm that so often burbles up through Vadell’s performance, the film succeeds in sustaining our awareness of the general’s evil nature, his grotesque vanity and appalling cruelty. We meet him in a series of extreme and unflattering close-ups, including one in which we are peering directly into his mouth, glimpsing his sharp, elongated fangs. Meanwhile a voice-over narration acquaints us with his dietary preferences:
Naturally, our dear count has tasted human blood from every corner of the world. English blood is his favorite, of course. He says it has something of the Roman Empire, a note of Viking skin; it’s hard to define, a bitter blood and dark. Regrettably, however, the count has also sampled the blood of South America, the blood of the workers. He doesn’t recommend it. It’s acrid, he says, with a doggy nose, a plebeian bouquet that clings for weeks to his lips and palate.
Some will instantly recognize the plummy, deadpan, vaguely flirtatious voice of Margaret Thatcher, played here by the Scottish actor Stella Gonet, while others will discover the narrator’s identity only near the end of the film.
Our revulsion for Pinochet grows during an extended sequence that takes us back to his past, when “this whole farce began.” In Paris as a young officer in the army of Louis XVI around the time of the French Revolution, the orphan Claude Pinoche first exhibits his vampire nature. A group of prostitutes accuse him of having bitten one of their coworkers on the neck, and he responds with shocking brutality, bludgeoning several women and crushing one’s skull with a sledgehammer. When the revolution breaks out, he watches as Marie Antoinette is beheaded, licks the blood off the guillotine blade in a state of ecstatic transport, steals the queen’s head from her tomb, and vows to spend his eternal life suppressing revolutions like the one that deposed his beloved monarch.
The narrator delivers an arch, boastful summary of the general’s subsequent career:
Years later the vampire Pinoche resurfaced, fighting against the revolutions in Haiti, Russia, and Algeria. But he tired of being a simple soldier and resolved to become a commander. And for this he chose a country without a king, an insignificant corner of South America. In 1935 he reappeared under his definitive name in this land of fatherless peasants, Chile. His aim was clear: to be a king…. In 1973 he staged a coup d’état…. Although he often looked like a pimp in the hide of a banana republic mafioso, the truth is that this little general successfully rescued Chile from a Bolshevik infestation.
The film is tough and economical in its depiction of what that “rescue” entailed: A line of prisoners with sacks over their heads stands on the edge of a ditch. Shots ring out, they fall one by one into the ditch. Then one bullet is fired down at each of them to make sure they are dead.
For much of his time in retirement, Pinochet is nursed and anxiously watched over by his elderly wife, Lucía (Gloria Münchmeyer), and his Russian butler, Fyodor (Alfredo Castro), who, as a reward for his “dirty work,” has been bitten by his employer and granted eternal vampire life. Fyodor was once responsible for setting up a concentration camp and torturing “revolutionaries.” Now, in white tie and tails, he serves the couple the same awful food every night—meals into which Lucía may be sneaking blood to keep her depressed husband alive.
When the exhausted count insists that he wants to die, his wife—whom he has refused to change—offers an alternative. He’ll bite her, she’ll become a vampire, they’ll eat all the stored-away frozen hearts, and, having been rejuvenated by their blood meal, they’ll relocate to some cozy retirement spot. Meanwhile, pulling their wheelie suitcases across the sand, his five bickering, immensely unattractive grown children arrive at the remote outpost. Afraid that Papa will go to his grave (for good this time) without having revealed the location of the stolen fortune allegedly stashed in secret locations around the world, they are determined to collect their share of the looted wealth. The problem is that Papa claims not to recall anything except for the possible existence of some papers in the basement.
The children have inherited their father’s amoral caginess, his bad temper, certainly his greed. Knowing what they’re up against, they’ve brought in outside help: Carmen (Paula Luchsinger), a young nun who multitasks as an exorcist and an accountant. Smarter, savvier, and more competent than the whole household put together, she exudes a visionary otherworldliness. She speaks fluent French: “The New Testament says that God can only understand the French language…. It also says that God listens to those who whisper in his ear in French with love,” she tells the instantly besotted general. Meanwhile she convinces the family of the necessity of an exorcism:
Sometimes the devil comes in through a wound in the skin. It happens to soldiers in battle, for example. Other times the devil enters the body through the anus…. The love of God will asphyxiate him, and the holy water will burn him.
Her intensity—and her closely shorn head—recall the heroine of The Passion of Joan of Arc, but unlike Carl Theodor Dreyer’s suffering martyr (played by Maria Falconetti), Larraín’s Carmen has a genius for mathematics, a suitcase packed with everything necessary to drive a stake through a vampire’s heart, and deeply held, highly idiosyncratic beliefs about theology. Her coltish beauty, her long, pointed nose, and her immense, closely set eyes suggest a nocturnal creature or an extraterrestrial. From the first time we see her, among a group of nuns robed in white, she seems surrounded by an aura of sanctity that never ceases to glow, even when she is seducing the general, listening to his avaricious children’s odious self-justifications, or helping them clarify their murky financial situation.
It’s hardly surprising when the 250-year-old vampire falls deeply in love with the lovely nun, a passion that reawakens his desire to live and leads to the film’s most beautiful scene: Carmen’s first flight, which she takes after she’s been bitten by Pinochet. She dives and tumbles and does graceful somersaults in the air, catching the currents and scrambling over rooftops, in marked contrast to the general’s “hunting” excursions, during which he speeds through the sky, his military cape flaring like bat wings, his body transformed into a blood-seeking missile.
Carmen’s escape from the pull of gravity is exhilarating and rhapsodic, balletic rather than monstrous. She seems more like a levitating saint than a vampire in search of nourishment, and the vision of her aloft reminds one of Jessica Chastain becoming giddily airborne in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and of the scene in Pasolini’s Teorema—a film deeply concerned with the nature of the sacred—in which the maid, Emilia, rises into the sky above the rooftops of her hometown.
Shot in black and white by the gifted cinematographer Ed Lachman, El Conde is infused with references to classic horror films. The extreme gloominess of the estancia, its shadowy corridors and oppressive decor take us back to Dracula’s mansion; the general’s incisors are much like those bared by Bela Lugosi, and by Max Schreck in Nosferatu. These old-fashioned tropes serve to further distance us from the characters and preclude the empathy that Larraín so wants us not to feel; Pinochet and his wretched household never quite seem like people. At the same time, the stylishness and sheer beauty we see onscreen—the looming guillotine silhouetted against the foggy sky, the vampires in flight above a broad avenue through the high-rise buildings and bright lights of Santiago—contrast intriguingly with the awfulness of the former dictator and his scheming offspring.
If the film takes a turn when Carmen enters, it takes a darker one with the onscreen appearance of Margaret Thatcher, who has been talking to us all along. Mrs. Thatcher, we learn, is not just another vampire, but Augusto Pinochet’s mother. When the general and Carmen appear to be falling in love, Mother feels compelled to intervene: “It’s time for me to head south once again,” she explains, jetting through the sky toward the estancia.
Because it’s not the first war I’ve fought in this hemisphere. This time I have to because our dear count has crossed a line. Call me a conservative, but this puerile intimacy shall not be allowed. I thought I would be able to tell this story from my chambers, but now there is no alternative.
The edge of sexual jealousy we have been hearing in her voice is, in fact, maternal solicitude and possessiveness—combined with sexual jealousy.
When Mrs. Thatcher shows up, the general claims to hardly know Carmen, who is lying naked in his bed, terrified by the British stranger’s aggressive hostility. Mrs. Thatcher is upset: “I am your love, Count,” she says. “Your oldest love.” She tells her son his origin story, how in the 1760s, when she was a British guest worker in the French vineyards, she was assaulted by a sailor. “He raped me, of course. But oddly, he was most interested in my neck.” Turned into a vampire, she bore a child—Claude Pinoche—and abandoned him in a basket. Eventually she “crossed the Channel to Great Britain, and in 1951 married Dennis Thatcher, taking his name.” She explains:
They called me the Iron Lady, the unrelenting Margaret Thatcher. You never knew who your mother was, and I never heard word of you, though I searched for two centuries. In the Falklands War, you decided to help us, not knowing that I, your mother, was the prime minister. Years later that horrid Spanish judge took out an international warrant against you for some human rights business, and you were arrested in London. And when I visited you in Virginia Water to thank you for what you’d done for England, I recognized you, but I didn’t say a word.
We then see her delivering a speech at a press conference in England years before:
The message is simple: The general must be free. He was a staunch friend of Britain, a dear ally who supported us throughout the Falklands War. He supplied valuable military intelligence against the Argentine enemy. Pinochet should be tried in Chile, not in England.
Viewers unfamiliar with the history may not realize that this speech is based on fact. In 1998 Pinochet was arrested in London and charged, under the principle of universal jurisdiction, with human rights abuses by the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón. Thatcher became his most ardent defender, calling for his release and return to Chile. The general was sent home, where he was ultimately charged with human rights crimes, tax evasion, and embezzlement, but died before he could be brought to justice.
In the film, Pinochet is forced to acknowledge that he owes Mrs. Thatcher even more than his freedom. Not only is she his mother, she is the reason he became a vampire. Now is the time for them to begin their lives together. But first, she tells her son, he must “eliminate” Carmen. The general refuses, and he and Carmen enact a session of erotic role-playing that involves dressing up as Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI—and producing the queen’s severed head. When, still in costume, Carmen is guillotined, history repeats itself.
While Pinochet’s heirs lack the stomach to kill the remaining vampires, their infirm father is fully capable of dispatching the loyal Fyodor. Unruffled, Mrs. Thatcher informs us:
The pack of philistines who came to plunder this place never knew that the true treasure of this house was always the books that my son collected throughout his long life: Napoleon’s letters to his brother, Darwin’s diaries, the first copy of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Chile’s Declaration of Independence, and several other gems that we will auction for millions of pounds.
So, it seems, her beloved count was not just a power-hungry, bloodsucking mass murderer and a thief, but an antiquarian and an intellectual. As his disgruntled children grab whatever household items they can find, stuff them into bags, and carry the loot away on boats, Mrs. Thatcher muses, “This is what the count achieved. Beyond the killing, his life’s work was to turn us into heroes of greed.” And by “us” she doesn’t mean only herself or the Pinochet family.
Left alone, mother and son can feast on Carmen’s and Fyodor’s hearts, growing more youthful as they do:
It’s well known that vampires’ hearts are the most delicious by far. They are also the most efficient for renewing our bodies. It’s hard to explain, but every fiber of heart that descends through our chests makes us younger.
In the final scene, the photography switches from black and white into color, like in The Wizard of Oz.
One of the last images we see is a bright yellow building, perhaps something like the school that Larraín might have attended as a boy growing up during the dictatorship. Only this time we’re watching the vampire prime minister escorting the vampire child to the gates of the schoolyard. Written on the façade is “Escuela de las Américas,” the name of the school, run by the US Department of Defense, that trained Latin American military personnel associated with the dirty wars and where, as we learned earlier in the film, Fyodor was taught to murder revolutionaries. El Conde ends on a note of horror devoid of violence and gore, a scene of the mother hugging her small son good-bye, an embrace that might have been touching if not for the invisible blood on the hands of them both.
“My son preferred to stay in this country of rubble,” Thatcher tells us at the film’s close.
I didn’t have much choice. Children today do as they please. He says that the most dangerous leftists of all are right here. We shall see. Perhaps I shall find it interesting being rich in a country of the poor. If you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.
It’s a funny last line, but like the rest of the funny lines in El Conde it makes us profoundly uneasy. Perhaps our discomfort stems from the fact that we’ve been laughing at the human embodiment of evil. Counterintuitively, perhaps, the film’s humor, its unshakable deadpan and stylish cinematography have resensitized us to the unspeakable crimes that transpired in Chile during the 1970s and 1980s. Its droll jokes and spurting blood reawaken the shock that may have been blunted over the decades by our familiarity with the history of that era; the film dismantles our defenses in ways that may have become unavailable to more straightforward historical dramas and earnest documentaries.
A friend says that El Conde does something like what Art Spiegelman achieves in Maus. We already know about the prisoners and guards in the death camps of the Holocaust, but it affects us in a new way when the tragedy is reimagined as a conflict between mice and cats. One also thinks of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, his imitation of Hitler, and of the ways in which humor’s inappropriateness can restore, clarify, and sharpen our moral vision. Perhaps that’s why so many Latin American authors—Roberto Bolaño, Samanta Schweblin, César Aira, and Mariana Enríquez, among others—have been drawn to gothic and ironic narratives. Gory murders, deadly riots, mysterious vanishings are the stuff of horror stories, but for these writers, such tropes mirror historical events.
El Conde is so weird and visually striking that it’s almost unendurable when we remember what Pinochet actually did. My own fascination with Pinochet and his crimes began with something I heard years ago from a Chilean friend. “In Santiago,” she said, “we thought that we were just like you North Americans. We went to poetry readings, we met our friends in cafés. We went to bed one night, and the next day we woke up and those same friends were being murdered in the soccer stadium.” It has always seemed to me like a warning, and one that’s more timely now than ever, about the alarming speed with which a democratic society can turn into an authoritarian one.