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2 smart, entertaining films revisit the horror of Pinochet's 1973 coup in Chile


This is FRESH AIR. Today is the 50th anniversary of the coup that replaced Chile's elected president, Salvador Allende, with a military dictatorship. As it happens, this past weekend has seen the theatrical release of two new films by Chilean directors, Sebastian Silva's "Rotting In The Sun" and Pablo Larrain's "El Conde," which will drop on Netflix this coming Friday. Our critic-at-large John Powers says that both offer smart, entertaining glimpses into the legacy of the 1973 coup.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: If you live in Chile, the date September 11 means something very different to what it does in the United States. You see; on that day in 1973, a coup d'etat, backed by the U.S. government, ousted Chile's democratically elected socialist president, Salvador Allende. Led by General Augusto Pinochet, the military junta governed as a dictatorship that, over the next 17 years, murdered and disappeared thousands.

This year marks the coup's 50th anniversary. And in commemoration, Chile's young president, Gabriel Boric, has announced a national plan to discover the fate of those who went missing in order to give their families some sort of peace. Not altogether coincidentally, I suspect, two audacious new Chilean movies are just now being released in our theaters. Made by filmmakers who weren't even alive in 1973, these films suggest how Chile has and hasn't escaped its past.

The presiding figure of the junta, Augusto Pinochet, lies at the centre of "El Conde," a funny, creepy new film that's currently in theaters but hits Netflix on September 15. Made by Pablo Larrain, who directed Natalie Portman in "Jackie" and Kristen Stewart in "Spencer," this highly polished movie weaves historical facts into a genre-busting horror-comedy. In a cheeky impersonation, the story is narrated by Pinochet's friend, the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. "El Conde" means "The Count" and not just any count. It's the film's conceit that Pinochet is a vampire, one who didn't really die in 2006, as the world believed, but lives in a huge seaside hacienda along with his vicious wife, Lucia, and his ex-Nazi manservant. He's been surviving on frozen human hearts that he turns into smoothies in a blender.

But as the action begins, he started flying like a bat into the city for fresher prey. These forays don't pass unnoticed, and soon people start turning up at the hacienda - first, his children, a dim and corrupt quartet who want Dad to finally croak so they can get the millions he's squirreled away in foreign accounts. Their arrival is followed by that of a beautiful, spiritually pure nun whom the kids believe is an accountant who's come to help track down the money. In fact, she's been sent by the Catholic Church for reasons of its own. What follows is a Bunuelian comedy of furtive romances, fangs in necks and the Pinochets chatting away about the money they stole and the people they had killed.

While the plot doesn't make perfect sense, at least not to me, the film is extremely entertaining, with exquisite black-and-white photography by Ed Lachman and bursts of weird poetry. Beneath the deadpan gags and visual beauty, "El Conde" is making a grave, even angry point about Chile. In portraying Pinochet as a vampire who still keeps taking people's blood, Larrain is suggesting that half a century on, his country isn't yet free of his brutal legacy.

There's nothing so politically pointed in Sebastian Silva's "Rotting In The Sun," a hilarious, ultra-contemporary comedy about social class, artistic narcissism and an online culture that gives us the attention span of gnats. Handheld and bouncy and frankly a bit too long, it's as freewheeling as "El Conde" is formally precise. Set in Mexico, the movie stars Silva as an unlikeable version of himself, who, when not complaining about his film career, talks of suicide. Bored, he goes to a gay beach awash in ketamine and full-frontal male nudity. There he meets real-life social media celebrity Jordan Firstman, who plays a clownishly bubbleheaded version of himself. Firstman wants Silva to work with him on a fatuous project. But before they can start, Silva vanishes in Mexico City. Firstman sets off to find out why his new friend has stopped answering his texts.

Now, "Rotting In The Sun" starts off as something of a lark in the early Almodovar vein. Yet Chileans know the dark side of disappearances, and once Silva vanishes, the tone shifts. A character we thought of as minor - Silva's maid, Vero, wonderfully played by Catalina Saavedra - moves to the center. Fearful she'll be blamed, Vero becomes the anxious working-class counterpoint to the spoiled men whose selfish silliness she must serve.

Where "El Conde's" elegant genre mash-up slides neatly onto the Netflix playlist, "Rotting In The Sun" has the transgressiveness of a midnight movie. Yet the two share something in common. In their subversive energy and their cutting satire of the privileged, Silva and Larrain show that the junta's attempt to impose a docile conservative Chilean culture didn't, in the end, succeed.

MOSLEY: John Powers reviewed "El Conde" and "Rotting In The Sun." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, shows and movies like "The Office," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Arrested Development," "Freaks And Geeks," "Family Ties" and "Bridesmaids" all have one person in common - Allison Jones, the casting director. She's widely credited with finding the actors who ushered in a new era of comedy. I hope you can join us. To keep up with what's on the show and to get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @NPRFreshAir.


MOSLEY: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.