‘El Conde’: Pablo Larraín Wickedly Resurrects Dictator Augusto Pinochet as a Wandering Vampire

The tyrants of history have indeed been bloodsuckers. They take from the people, plunder and tend to leave trails of corpses behind. September 11, 2023 marked 50 years since the elected socialist government of Salvador Allende was overthrown in Chile by the U.S.-backed coup. He was replaced by military dictator Augusto Pinochet, whose regime killed an estimated 30,000 people until he was removed via plebiscite in 1988. Director Pablo Larraín gets a wicked sort of revenge against Pinochet with “El Conde,” a gothic satire that wonders if the strongman, who died in 2006, might have survived as a South American Dracula. Though cackling with its teeth dipped in blood, this movie is really another addition to a cinema of the Andes that remains haunted by the recent past.

Experts on the history of the Chilean coup will be startled to discover here a Pinochet who began life as a young lad named Claude Pinoche (Clemente Rodríguez), during the French Revolution. A vampire and monarchist, Pinoche licks the blood off the guillotine that ended the life of Marie Antoinette and spends the centuries as a counterrevolutionary. He eventually makes his way to South America, where in Chile he joins the army, alters his name and leads the overthrow of Allende. Following years of retirement after the plebiscite, circumstances push Pinochet (now played by Jaime Vadell) to fake his own death in 2006. He now lives in a remote corner of the country, feeding off victims and refrigerated hearts. His companions remain wife Lucía (Gloria Münchmeyer) and loyal butler Fyodor (Alfredo Castro), a descendant of anti-Bolshevik Russians. A visitor arrives, Carmen (Paula Luchsinger), passing as an accountant when she is actually a nun sent to exorcise this vampiric evil from the land.

“El Conde” will bite harder the more you know about Chile and Pinochet. Larraín’s style, always visually dreamlike, has preferred subtly and post-modern restraint. In his home country he addressed the coup with morbidly dark character profiles like “Tony Manero” and “Post Mortem.” Yet, his best films about the country’s political battles are the lively and eloquent “Neruda,” where the legendary poet flees from the police, and “No,” the Oscar-nominated drama about advertising used as a tool against Pinochet during the plebiscite campaigns. U.S. readers may recognize the director for “Jackie” and “Spencer,” his meditative studies of Jackie Kennedy and Princess Diana under stress. “El Conde” is the director dabbling in small doses of horror and higher ones of acidic comedy. He skips over diving too much into the very details of Pinochet’s time in power, preferring to linger on the idea of a tyrant finding it harder to beat the ravages of age. Pinochet was always an unnerving personality, compared by the great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano to a figure out of Goya’s darkest works. That Larraín has chosen to imagine him as a vampire should come as no surprise.

The screenplay, by Larraínand Guillermo Calderón, is rather thin on plot because the driving force is what it wants to say about the nature of fascism, corruption and the rot in the upper classes. It’s surprising the “hero” is a nun, considering how closely the church collaborated with military regimes in South America. There’s gleeful fun in the portrayal of the dictator’s wife, Lucia, who we learn has been desperate for her husband to give her the transformative bite to become a vampire. His adult children also arrive to see how much they can get from their father’s mostly stolen riches. At the dinner table they greet him as if they were soldiers on parade. How they justify their ill-begotten gains with nervous excuses to Carmen is also hilarious to behold. Faces are crucial here and everyone’s conniving, haughty looks contrast well with Carmen’s angelic face. Jaime Vadell may lack Pinochet’s signature nasal voice, but he has the perfect face for a man used to power and violence, who can still summon them when it suits him.

It is in the images, filmed in lush black and white by Edward Lachman, who is clearly inspired by the classics like “Dracula,” that one can feel the sincere anger of the artist. Pinochet flies out into the capital of Santiago, his cape flapping in the night air, to attack unsuspecting victims. There can be no clearer metaphor for Pinochet’s shadow over Chilean society. Larraín even re-creates a real moment from Pinochet’s funeral where admirers made the fascist salute over his coffin. The recent rise to power of a 37-year-old leftist president has only re-inflamed divisions. Right-wing fans of the military regime insist on denying some of Pinochet’s worst crimes. At his Patagonia getaway, the dying strongman regrets nothing and proves too powerful for Carmen to resist. He also blends smoothies out of hearts. Naturally, the butler Fyodor, played with refined eeriness by Alfredo Castro (a regular of Larraín’s Chilean films), is ever so loyal, and we learn that he once ran his master’s infamous death camps. 

After a middle section that threatens to drag under Larraín’s arthouse habits, the satire truly picks up with the arrival of a surprise guest, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Stella Gonet), who in real life was a friend of Pinochet’s. She too is a vampire, of course she is, and is here to make sure the count’s plans for retirement don’t mess anything up. Again the idea is more successful than the plot itself, especially when Larraín throws in dialogue that connects the birth of a fascist like Pinochet to the imperialist power structures Thatcher represented (quite literally like a mother figure). Some critics have accused the film’s approach to be too subdued in the actual delivery, despite moments of hypnotic grandeur, such as Carmen floating above a Patagonia landscape like a figure out of a Romantic era painting. It could be because Larraín is not necessarily a radical filmmaker, but one belonging to a post-modern generation grappling with the past devoid of ideological commitments. The Chilean Revolution was drowned in blood, the military dictatorship only brought repression and, even now, a left-wing government can’t seem to bring about profound changes any longer. In Larraín’s 2020 film, “Ema,” modern Chilean youth dance to new electronic beats in the streets, yet the film is more mournful than joyous. They’re dancing in a world in limbo, toward nothing.

Like many of the films made in neighboring Argentina, Chile’s cinema always has shadows of the dictatorship’s effects, no matter the genre. But “El Conde” also speaks to viewers anywhere in its idea that our world is still littered with vampires like its ravenous Pinochet. Fascism is returning as a threat, as we now know all too well in the United States. Larraín wants to strip down the dictator of his nightmares to farce, condemned to face oblivion while maybe seducing the pretty nun sent like a lamb to the slaughter, by a church still convinced it has authority. This is a film that doesn’t become funny by the end. Instead it has more of a cynical sigh or grin. Fascist dictators and political hacks may wither away and die physically, but it’s even harder to try and drive a stake through the dark heart of the spirit they leave behind. 

El Conde” begins streaming Sept. 15 on Netflix.