Vague Visages’ El Conde review contains minor spoilers. Pablo Larraín’s 2023 Netflix movie features Alfredo Castro, Antonia Zegers and Paula Luchsinger. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
It’s important to remember that vampires — despite their good looks, great outfits and contributions to cinema — are the bad guys. The romantic bloodsuckers come with perhaps the most gilded image of all fantasy villains, seductive and horrible all at once. The ways that movie fans joyfully burnish the legacy of evil comes under the glare of director Pablo Larraín’s new film, El Conde, which looks to defang the grin of Augusto Pinochet that still looms over Chile. There’s a lot at stake in Larraín’s 2023 feature, and while it doesn’t all land, the director’s savage depiction of fascism — powered by an army of the walking dead — is an elegantly droll and wonderfully bloodthirsty satire.
After a triptych of films about life under Pinochet’s rule, Larraín finally tackles dictatorship head-on… almost. El Conde reimagines the primary subject as a 250-year-old vampire in retirement, and for much of the film, the subject is a depressed, lonesome figure, with the marching bands of his glory days still ringing and his children picking at their inheritance like vultures. In addition, the church dares to save what might be left of Pinochet’s soul, perhaps for nefarious reasons.
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In El Conde, Larraín puts superheroes, vampires and military generals into capes as legions of adorers flock to them. The filmmaker makes it clear that the undead need their living admirers just as much as they need blood to survive. That’s one of the most terrifying aspects of Larrain’s creations in El Conde — the only thing the vampires love more than blood is the killing itself. And the film’s title is a nod to what the vampire Pinochet really prefers to be called, the Count. The military title amounts to something, but even that doesn’t do justice to the dictator’s bloodthirsty nature.
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El Conde is an unhinged satire, more than any of recent memory. Jackie (2016) and Spencer (2021) might be ghost stories, but Larraín’s latest release has the severed head of Marie Antoinette, and a segment narrated by Margaret Thatcher will warrant the biggest laughs. Forget The Crown — El Conde is a more controlled biopic and provides a more subtle vision of Thatcher than any productions in recent memory. Larrain restores control of his material, plunging his stake into the former prime minister’s heart. There’s no risk of the satire feeling too glib, as the filmmaker has a wonderfully sustained power over his material. From a foreigner’s perspective, though, it’s hard to know how the dry humor will play in Larraín’s native Chile.
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El Conde is a staggeringly bleak portrait of fascism’s univocal power, but Larraín’s target board is a little too crowded. The film wants to go after the church, the army and the bourgeoisie all at once. The script is sharp, though, and the joke impact will depend on the limit of one’s love for vampire puns, as several moments veer into Taika Waititi territory. There are fun riffs on vampire lore, and Larraín makes plain his hate for the bloody-mindedness of fascism.
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Sure to be controversial in Chile, El Conde is one of the more surreal auteur-driven Netflix projects. Still, the tone is uneven. Larraín tunes into satire and horror with his usual verve and sophistication, but the effect is occasionally jarring. The filmmaker’s tableaux of Pinochet’s underground lair — where frozen hearts are stored next to deeds for stolen Chilean land — is utterly chilling. And just as sophisticated is Larraín’s skewering of the Chilean one-percent. But the most affecting scenes in El Conde are between Pinochet and a nun.
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El Conde shows how fascism works like a parasite — it just needs a willing host to sink its teeth into, and once bitten, the poison does its dirty work. Larrain’s corrosive portrait of Pinochet’s reign shows that while the general might be gone, his vision of fascism is undead. Still, now, the looming spectre of the dictator haunts, with those fangs always glinting for one brief chance at flight.
Jonny Mahon-Heap is a culture and lifestyle reporter. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Little White Lies, Man About Town and Metro.
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