Pablo Larraín’s latest film El Conde envisions Chilean dictator Pinochet as an immortal vampire struggling to end his own existence.
The real-life General Augusto Pinochet has long haunted Chilean politics, even before he was re-imagined in this new film as a vampire. 50 years after his violent coup against democratically-elected president Salvador Allende and an almost 20 year military dictatorship that killed and disappeared approximately 3,065 people and tortured over 25,000 more, his figure remains highly controversial in the country and beyond. While Chile grapples with Pinochet’s legacy, one of its most prominent filmmakers, Pablo Larraín, joins the conversation with El Conde, which offers a satirical take on the dictator with compelling performances and quietly stunning cinematography.
Larraín transports viewers to a timeless yet decaying mansion in the heart of the Andes, adorned with an array of historical decorations meticulously crafted by production designer Rodrigo Bazaes. This mansion serves as the residence of Augusto Pinochet (Jaime Vadell), a vampire who, after witnessing the fall of the French monarchy during the 1799 revolution, made a vow to combat insurgents and revolutionaries. According to Larraín and Guillermo Calderon’s screenplay, Pinochet’s journey eventually led him to Chile, where he spearheads a murderous dictatorship. Tale as old as time, right?
“I don’t want to live another 250 years.”
As the years pass and Pinochet becomes disillusioned with society’s lack of reverence, he attempts to quit drinking blood and end his life. Strangely, his attempts appear futile. As Pinochet roams the halls of his mansion, his adult children arrive to divide the General’s fortune. The arrival of Carmencita, an exorcist nun posing as an accountant hired to unravel their financial entanglements, alters the family dynamics and breathes new life into the ailing man.
Outright, the film faces a daunting challenge: how to depict a figure responsible for heinous actions without either humanizing or sympathizing with the real-life Pinochet, who committed grave human rights abuses. Movies centered on authoritarian leaders must navigate this delicate balance without veering into caricature. For example, Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit accomplished this effectively in 2019 by portraying Hitler through the childlike imagination of Jojo, gradually revealing the dictator’s increasing aggressiveness as the protagonist questioned his own radicalization.
“It’s true I’ve made mistakes. Accounting mistakes.”
In El Conde, Larraín opts not to pull punches, presenting Pinochet metaphorically as a violent and malevolent vampire. It’s not exactly subtle. The film portrays the count engaging in multiple gruesome killings, from factories to hotel rooms, and depicts him grotesquely drinking human hearts from a blender. It’s grizzly to look at, and Vadell further solidifies this reimagined monster with a performance that portrays a dictator unapologetic about the horrors he inflicted, and at times, even reveling in them. It is evident that the film does not intend for the audience to empathize with Pinochet; rather, it makes us fear him.
However, El Conde does not limit itself to portraying violence and evil. It also delves into corruption and the various money laundering schemes employed by the Pinochet family during their time in power, exploring the long-term consequences of such actions. Pinochet is haunted by the fear that history will remember him as a thief. Meanwhile, as the family attempts to divide their wealth, they grapple with a complex web of accounts, deeds, and shell companies that prove exceedingly difficult to untangle. In fact, the film’s core revolves around a series of interviews conducted by Carmen, the exorcist nun portrayed by Paula Luchsinger, as she confronts each of Pinochet’s children about these financial matters.
“You can call a soldier a killer but not a thief.”
These interviews stand out as the film’s highlight. Luchsinger delivers accusations of corruption with deadpan precision, while each of the children offers hilariously convoluted justifications for their father’s actions. The interviews are often juxtaposed with montages illustrating Pinochet haunting for young hearts in contemporary Santiago de Chile.
This juxtaposition, along with the recurring vampire metaphor seeking new blood, effectively underscores the point that authoritarian regimes leave wounds that can persist for generations and are difficult to heal. But this isn’t the film’s sole theme. It also mentions topics such as institutional self-interest masked as altruism, the allure of power, Pinochet’s relationships with other world leaders, and more. The film’s intricate plot allows these diverse themes to surface, but its slow and contemplative pace may alienate viewers unfamiliar with Chilean history or Latin American politics. Yet, even if it’s convoluted, Ed Lachman’s beautiful black and white cinematography will leave audiences entranced.
The bottom line.
El Conde does not strive to be didactic; rather, it serves as an exploration of the collective memory of dictatorship and an attempt to find closure where none exists. Pinochet passed away in 2006 without facing justice for his crimes, making it cathartic to witness this reinterpretation confront his legacy. However, the film transcends the boundaries of Chile’s past, serving as a reflection on how societies worldwide grapple with power, evil, and challenging historical legacies. It poses questions that individuals in every corner of the globe will eventually need to confront regarding their own countries, because of it, it’s one of the best political movies of the year so far. You can, ahem, count on that.
El Conde is available to stream on Netflix. Watch the trailer here:
EL CONDE - 9/10