Pablo Larraín on Depicting Augusto Pinochet as a Vampire in Netflix’s ‘El Conde’ While the Right Explores New Ways to Conquer Power

Pablo Larraín is in Italy where the prolific Chilean auteur – whose body of work comprises “Spencer” with Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana and “Jackie,” in which Natalie Portman portrayed Jackie Kennedy, as well as scathing criticisms of the Chilean dictatorship “Post Mortem,” “No,” and “Neruda” – is being honored by Italy’s National Museum of Cinema with a lifetime achievement award.

Prior to his masterclass on Tuesday Larraín spoke to Variety about his two latest projects: Netflix movie “El Conde” which is tipped to launch from Venice, and “Maria,” the biopic of late great soprano Maria Callas, to be played by Angelina Jolie, which is now in prep.

I’d like to start by asking you about your ties to Torino, where as part of the tribute there has been a screening of “Tony Manero,” your second film, which won two prizes at the Torino Film Festival in 2008.

It’s very beautiful to me. It feels like back then, in 2008, it had a big impact. The festival was directed by Nanni Moretti who is one of my film heroes. So I remember he was the one who gave us the award. Also, it’s the start of my relationship not just with Torino, but with Italy where most of my film heroes come from.

You’ve been pretty prolific since then and treaded new ground visually and narratively with each film. Of course after “Tony Manero” you’ve often explored Chilean life under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet from different angles — most recently with “El Conde,” which is described as a black comedy centered on the figure of Pinochet transformed into a 250-year-old vampire. Can you tell me more?

This might not be the best time for me to go into too many details, but what I can tell you, regarding the first part of the question is that I feel uneasy with myself when I feel that I’m exploring known ground, thematically, visually, and stylistically. I’ve tried – maybe consciously and sometimes unconsciously – to put myself in some sort of danger and tried to provoke a new emotion, a new state of mind, with each film. Otherwise, the joy of making them could become a mirror placed up to repetition. And that could be dangerous for any form of art, I think. 

And then look “El Conde,” the Count, it’s an old idea that is based on the most dangerous of all the potential concepts, which is that a figure like Pinochet might be eternal in a certain aspect.

Tell me more

And that could have an interesting interaction with the literary and romantic perception of a vampire. And the idea of evil being able to feed itself in order to exist over the years and over the Trinity. Because, you know, it looks like the far right – that part of our political spectrum that can often flirt with racism – it’s always there to remind us that it could be back in any moment. So maybe a movie like this could – with the tools of cinema and literature in this case – bring back certain things that could be interesting to be aware of. And to remind us, nowadays, that in many countries in Europe, and particularly in Chile, we’ve seen how this political right is exploring new ways to conquer voters and to conquer power. And sometimes the figure of it [the extreme right] has been re-read in a way that it could be dangerous. I’m speaking of what’s going on, as we speak, in my country as well as in America and in several countries in Europe. 

So ‘El Conde’ is an allegory?

And a very straightforward one. In fact, it’s so simple that it might not even be an allegory, or a metaphor, because it’s too straightforward. But I don’t know. It feels that it’s right to say something like that at a time when it seems that history needs to repeat itself in order to remind us how dangerous we are – us as a system. And I don’t want to change anything, because we can’t. But if we can show it, maybe we can find a place where we could feel that it makes sense and that type of meaning lets you breathe better.

Your next project “Maria,” starring Angelina Jolie as Maria Callas, will complete your trilogy of portraits of powerful women figures after “Jackie” and “Spencer.” What can you tell me about this film?

I seriously think that speaking about movies that aren’t made yet is a very bad idea for a number of reasons. I have grown to understand that the less you talk about them, the better, because you want to keep quiet about something that you don’t completely understand until you make it. So we’re in the process of making that movie very soon. But what I can tell you is that I’m extremely happy to have the chance to conclude this process of depicting women who changed the fate of the 20th century, culturally speaking. And they had such an affection in the world. And this time, it’s about an artist. And it’s triggered by my admiration for her life and work. I don’t know what else to tell you, it’s just, it’s through admiration. And that could be a tricky thing because admiration is not enough to make a movie. So I have to dive deep into who she [Maria Callas] was. And obviously, getting to the process, as I’ve done before with both Natalie [Portman] and Kristen [Stewart] of listening to them and eventually following them. I don’t have the skill to comprehend that character until a great actress like them – and in this case Angelina – until they come up with their take. But what I can tell you is that one of the great things that I’ve experienced in these movies is that eventually they can capture the character, and all I have to do is just film them.

So I’m very excited to get into that process because there’s something very beautiful in this. You work very hard on creating the concept, apparently based on someone who was real, and then eventually the breaking point approaches where you become a witness of someone who can capture and play that person. So, that’s what I’m aiming for. And that is very interesting, because it becomes a testimony of art and humanity that I think is beautiful and relevant.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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