Dictators never die; they just lie there entombed where admirers and sycophants can forever kiss their likeness behind glass cases.
Why does a nation, for all the thievery and murder that a dictator commits with impunity, seem enslaved by the memory of the said persona?
These were the same questions asked before and there were answers given—regular, humdrum, political scientific discourses. Until this film El Conde arrived from Chile. In the dark imaginary of its director, Pablo Larrain, dictators are vampires— dreadful, elegant, suave. They live in castles or palaces or state residences, untouched, despicable but not vulnerable. And they, like the remembrance of the splendor that their reign brought to a suffering country, live forever. Like true love.
What about dictators? They are cruel but cultured, gentlemanly and yet grotesquely corrupt in ways of wealth-acquisition. They thrive in vulnerable populations and work well with the poor. Their administration, while declared as having caused poverty and hunger, proffers at the same time memories of florid civilization, of nationalism and invention of identities.
Very much like a vampire.
But to say that El Conde is an exercise in parallelism is to negate the very same contradictions that forswear any attempt to compare a creature of horror with a being of terror.
Rendered in black and white, the color grading allowing a de-facto gothic atmosphere all over the landscape, El Conde follows a real dictator, Augusto Pinochet.
Who was Pinochet? He was a dictator who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990, making that reign the longest in the history of his country. He started his rule as the leader of a military junta, the same junta which placed him as the president of the republic. Through a machination, he was able to influence the formation of a constitution that was approved through a referendum. The same constitution confirmed him as a de jure (with the legalistic appearance) president of Chile. Sounds familiar?
His dictatorship was characterized by the purging of the leftist politicians, the torture and murder of those who refused to recognize his government. Most of all, he was linked to the phenomenon of the Desaparecidos or the Disappeared Ones. Over the violation of human rights, Pinochet would be accused of embezzling state funds with an estimated hoard amounting to several millions of dollars, an amount that, in the film, was considered small compared to what other dictators, like Marcos, have seized for themselves. Yes, Marcos’s name was mentioned in the film in the same breath as Fulgencio Batista’s, the military dictator of Cuba in the 1950s.
It is, however, unfair to the creative sense of this film to stay with the political realities. In El Conde, Pinochet is a vampire. He is an old man who wants to die. He does not want to live listening to how he is being disparaged by critics. Besides, he is already 250 years old. His wife, Lucia has chosen his butler as a lover. And their children are all coming home because they have been hearing about a being who slaughters humans and takes away their hearts.
When the children arrive in the palace, their question is: “Is it our father who has been eating the hearts of men and women in this place?”
So long as he eats the heart of the people in Santiago, he will live on. The supply of hearts continues unabated. Kept refrigerated, these frozen hearts are imperfect but nevertheless, any human heart can make a dictator live on and on.
Who is keeping him alive? What maintains the life of a politically evil being? Not since Wallerstein’s theory of world-system in which some countries benefit and some are exploited and Gunder Frank’s dependency paradigm (go on, smirk!), has there been such an original positionality about how dictators are really products of other nations’ desires. In the case of the real Pinochet, there was the US propping up his dictatorship. Doesn’t this sound familiar again? And in the case of the vampire Pinochet, there is Margaret Thatcher—yes, the Iron Lady—as Pinochet’s vampire mommy!
What a terrific metaphor. And yet, the power of the film El Conde is not in the allegorical but more in the metaphysical/mythical conceit of our emotions supplying the engine that makes the system of a one-man rule succeed. He consumes our hearts and he sucks our blood. Even the nubile girl who provides accounting services but is really a nun in disguise is helpless against the vampire’s fangs. Politics is sexual, an aberration too perverse and delicious to ignore.
Jaime Vadell as Pinochet, I swear, appears so much to be the real thing that I needed to look at the photograph of the real director to marvel at the similarity. The most iconic image of Pinochet when he was alive was the military uniform that he regularly wore. There is an old essay written in 2009 by Frances Romero that talks about how Pinochet was fond of donning a cape, which “lent the aging despot the appearance of a dapper Dracula.” In El Conde, a scene displays that cape in a glass cabinet. The dictator puts it on and flies as a vampire across the sky. As with any horror film, the end shows the nun, having been bitten by the vampire, fly and flip above the horizon, a promise that evil lives on.
The film also stars Gloria Münchmeyer as Lucia. Stella Gonet is Margaret (Thatcher).
El Conde is directed by Larrain from his screenplay written with Guillermo Calderon. The screenplay, which reinvented the electric blender, won the best Screenplay Award at the 80th Venice Film Festival.
El Conde streams on Netflix. n