When Augusto Pinochet led the 1973 coup that overthrew Chile’s president, Salvador Allende, horror followed. Tens of thousands of people suspected of conspiring against or even just criticizing the new reactionary junta were arrested. Many were imprisoned and tortured in a dark archipelago of carceral sites. Others were murdered, gunned down, and thrown into mass unmarked graves or hurled into the ocean from helicopters. By the time Pinochet relinquished political power in 1990, his name was synonymous with the vicious strain of fascist violence he helped spread across Latin America.
So why make Pinochet a vampire?
Pablo Larrain’s El Conde, an alternately ambitious and maddening attempt to reckon with one of the 20th century’s ugliest villains, does not take Pinochet at face value. Larraín and his frequent co-writer Guillermo Calderon do not dwell on the free market capitalist, career army officer, and power-mad dictator known by the world. Instead, they imagine Pinochet as a 250-year-old French vampire who nearly gets staked to death in the revolution. A reactionary from the jump, he wanders the world as a mercenary helping to put down revolutions in Russia and Haiti before ending up in South America under a new identity.
Set in a hazy modern alternate reality, El Conde has the long-out-of-power Pinochet (who died in 2006) living in desolate exile on a secluded compound and wondering whether immortality is worth the bother. Jaime Vadell plays him as a stiff-necked, tight-lipped aristocrat who treats his family as coldly as strangers. This makes sense, given that the film’s name comes from the title Pinochet supposedly told even close relations to address him by.
In Larraín and Calderon’s vision, Pinochet’s children are gathering in anticipation of his demise and the possible inheritance of his fortune. There is some comedy here, watching the tentative and weak-willed brood tiptoe around this malevolent force while acting like vampires themselves. Potentially hastening his end is Carmencita (Paula Luchsinger), pretending to be Pinochet’s new accountant but who is in fact a nun trained as an exorcist and dispatched by the Church to save the old Count’s soul.
There is some potential in El Conde. Explaining Pinochet’s revanchism by having him equate Allende’s socialist reformers with the mob he personally witnessed slice off Marie Antoinette’s head provides an interesting historical consistency (the shot of him greedily licking her blood off the guillotine’s blade is indelible). But satire goes out the window once we see Pinochet flying around Chile to harvest blood, his dark cloak fluttering in the night wind.
You see, this vampire isn’t partial to sucking from the necks of women with heaving décolletage. He prefers to rip out victims’ hearts, chuck them into a blender, and slurp down the heavy concoction like a Halloween-themed Jamba Juice smoothie. Once a viewer has seen Pinochet do that a few times, taking El Conde as a critique of the violent ramifications of neoliberalism becomes a little more difficult. And that is even before the identity of the British woman narrating his back story with cool approval is revealed.
Pulling off high-concept silliness requires a story with momentum and impact. Larraín did that with 2019’s drama, Ema. That film had the thinnest of stories but moved like a freight train due to the intensity of its lead, the blazing visuals, and the sense he was trying to convey something elemental about life outside social strictures. But El Conde has little pulse; ironic, given all the gouts of blood. Vadell and Luchsinger (whose elegant anachronism closely resembles that of Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc) are muted, which does not help with a story that is murky at best. At least Edward Lachman’s black-and-white cinematography is wondrous and dreamy, especially in the swooping moments where Pinochet and later a victim he vampirizes take flight.
But all this gimcrack artifice cannot obscure the crucial problem with El Conde. Namely, why? Larraín has spent much of his career illuminating shadowy corners of Chile’s dark history through storytelling that used drama, pain, and humor; especially with 2012’s No, a savvy and impassioned yet non-didactic account of life under Pinochet. The historical record provides ample material to be engaged and enraged by. But Larraín’s rendering of Pinochet as a mythological creature leaches the story of punch and relevance. Even with its pugilistic political edge, the result feels distant and hazy, closer to Larraín’s interior biopics like Jackie (2016) or Spencer (2021).
We make up monsters in part to comprehend the unknown, to give manifest form to inchoate fears and anxieties. But Pinochet existed. His crimes are known. His reasoning is as cold and clear as that of any reactionary authoritarian. Turning him into a vampire minimizes and trivializes that reality, not to mention setting an ugly precedent for imagining public figures as literal bloodsuckers, which could easily have dangerous ramifications.
Pinochet did monstrous things, which many still support. In our world today, real people fomenting anti-democratic putsches wear T-shirts celebrating Pinochet’s disappearance of dissidents.
If only Pinochet’s legacy could be eliminated so easily with a wooden stake.