Pablo Larraín / Netflix Jaime Videll as Augusto Pinochet in 'El Conde.'
Warning: This article contains spoilers for El Conde.
Fifty years ago — Sept. 11, 1973 — a violent coup d'etat in Chile by the country's military forces overthrew democratically-elected President Salvador Allende with the support and encouragement of the U.S. government. The coup ended decades of electoral democracy in the South American country, replacing it with a military dictatorship headed by General Augusto Pinochet. Thousands of people were killed or "disappeared" without a trace during the years of the dictatorship, while even more were imprisoned and tortured for the crime of wanting a more equal economy.
Chilean director Pablo Larraín has delved into his country's dark political history before — his 2012 film No covered the 1988 plebiscite in which Chilean citizens finally voted to oust Pinochet, while 2016's Neruda was about the Nobel Prize-winning poet who (recent forensic evidence has confirmed) was among those murdered by Pinochet's regime. But in his new movie El Conde, which hit Netflix just days after the coup's 50th anniversary, Larrain finally tackles the dictator head-on — by turning him into a black-and-white vampire.
"I've made movies related to this subject in the past, but those movies were always around more peripheral characters that dealt with the consequences of the dictatorship, but I had never really made a movie about Pinochet himself," Larraín tells EW. "It's challenging, because you want to face the character without creating empathy. You want to try to understand evil, and figure out a way to shoot it. So the satire, the dark humor, the vampire, the black-and-white were all ingredients to achieve that while having the right distance."
Pablo Larrain / Netflix Pinochet's children — played by (L to R) Antonia Zegers, Diego Muñóz, Catalina Guerra, Amparo Noguera, and Marcial Tagle — in 'El Conde'
Larraín has already delved into the lives of other iconic historical figures. His two English-language films, 2016's Jackie and 2021's Spencer, were fascinating biopics of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Princess Diana. But the experience of making those movies (and then watching them alongside audiences) convinced Larraín that he needed to take a different approach to Pinochet. In order to ensure that viewers did not have any empathy with the brutal dictator, Larraín decided to make Pinochet's monstrousness literal by portraying him as a 250-year-old vampire for El Conde.
"Screenwriters and filmmakers all over the world have different tricks to create empathy bridges, but I think that empathy will always happen when there's any form of humanity in front of the screen," Larraín explains. "So in order to avoid it or to have the right distance, you need to be very specific with the behavior of that person — it should represent what they did on this planet. So it was a conversation not only with Guillermo [Calderón], who wrote the script with me, but also with the actors and how we shot it. We want you to be a witness of what's going on, while not necessarily sharing what the character is trying to do. That creates the possibility that the audience can reflect on it and can have a nervous laugh when necessary, but that's the right distance. We cannot cross that wall because then the movie would be impossible and would have a moral problem."
Pablo Larrain / Netflix Paula Luchsinger in 'El Conde'
El Conde addresses the basics of Pinochet's coup and rise to power, but also dresses them up in metaphor and genre. A more straightforward account of Allende's overthrow can be found in Patricio Guzman's three-part documentary The Battle of Chile (a new restoration of which is currently playing in theaters in select cities). But El Conde's depiction of a 250-year-old vampire still preying on the people of his country can be relevant to the politics of other countries as well — say, America, where the two leading presidential candidates and multiple powerful senators are more than 75 years old.
"I hope the movie could land in different countries or different societies and ring the bells of elements that are universal," Larraín says. "Hopefully you can learn certain things that happened in my country, but then you could probably relate to the reality of your own society, since we're seeing the rise of extreme right-wing movements, candidates, and ideas again. We should know that a fascist is not just someone who is yelling in German. They can come in all different forms."
Speaking of that…Netflix viewers may notice that even when you switch the audio track on El Conde from the English dub to the original Spanish, the narration is still in English. The final act of the film reveals why: The narrator is none other than Margaret Thatcher, here reimagined as another vampire. In fact, she's Pinochet's vampiric mother. It's a powerful reminder that Pinochet wouldn't have gotten anywhere without money, weapons, and encouragement from Anglophone leaders.
"You can feel this patronizing attitude from politicians in Europe and the U.S. They act like they always have something to teach us," Larraín says. "We used to be a colony, and they still have this feeling of superiority that is exhausting. So we had fun with that character. At different points, we considered bringing in Kissinger or Nixon, who supported Pinochet. Nixon was the one who said they should 'make the economy scream' in Chile. I think that relationship is an interesting thing to observe."
El Conde is streaming now on Netflix.
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