Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Oct 12, 2016 9:52 am 
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Larraín's metafictional tale of the famous fugitive poet and his unknown usurper

The Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín built a career out of depicting his country's dark time in the Pinochet dictatorship, into which he was born and lived most of his teens. Allende was killed and Pinochet took over in 1973 and reigned till 1990; Larraín was born in 1976. Best are Tony Manero (2008), technically Larraín's second film, and Post Mortem (2010), both starring great Chilean actor and man of the theater Alfredo Castro. Castro made these two pictures, singlehandedly defining Larraín's picture of the slime and gloom of the regime. They're simple, low-keyed films. And they're great.

Something more positive and diffuse came next in the director's 2012 No, featuring Gael García Bernal as an ad man whose publicity campaign was instrumental in PInochet's losing a plebiscite and giving up power. With The Club (2015) Larraín returned to creepiness in a vaguely contemporary depiction of corruption and repression in the Catholic church.

Larraín is busy and productive. No and his latest film, Neruda, are more elaborate productions. But the truth is nothing he has done has the authority and originality of Tony Manero and Post Morten. Granted the energy of its surreal visuals and many tableaux, Neruda, a grand and glossy metafictional phantasmagoria about the famous Chilean communist poet on the run, is on the overblown and repetitious side. The same formulas and the same lines of poetry ring out over and over. Neruda's ambitious but ineffectual young police nemesis Óscar Peluchonneau is played by Garcia Bernal. His perhaps imaginary presence and his tiresomely insistent voice-overs take over the screen from Luis Gnecco as Neruda, a less interesting actor than Alfredo Castro, the poet coming off as a blowhard.

But he is an audacious one, certainly, whose following among vast elements of the general public is made clear. This Neruda is many people, poet and senator, loving husband, "bigamist" (since he has a foreign first wife who's dredged up unsuccessfully by the government) and denizen of brothels. This links him with Peluchonneau, who is or imagines himself to be the illegitimate but ultimately acknowledged son of the founder of the police department, represented by a giant-sized statue, by a woman who worked in a brothel for thirty years. Peluchonneau keeps repeating that he is not a supporting player. (Vadim Rapin has suggested that Peluchenneau is in a love-hate relationship with his prey just as Larrín is with Pinochet, whose regime has been so fruitful for his work.) And this is another uncertainty of the film, an intriguing one: who is the protagonist, the pursuer or the pursued, the great poet fleeing over the Andes into lifetime exile, or the nonentity who narrates the film and seeks to become its protagonist? García Bernal is the internationally famous artist, of course, so for non-Chilean audiences his character attracts more attention.

The film has gotten raves in festival showings. Typical of those is the reaction of Justin Chang in a Toronto roundup for Variety, calling it "the most inventive, freewheeling movie about an artist since Todd Haynes' 'I'm Not There.'" Critics like that it's not "an ordinary biopic" but instead (in Chang's words) "a richly inventive fantasia on the poet's themes." What are "the poet's themes," though? The phrase is troublingly vague. Departing from history and seeking a historical figure's "essence" is doubtless welcome; we're all tired of conventional biopics. But for all the cinematic flourishes, it doesn't work here. Maybe Neruda is a grand and epic failure, but it's a failure for sure - one that wears out its welcome early on. For all its fantasies and changes rung on the actual life of its subject, Neruda looks more like a conventional big budget picture than anything Larraín has done up till now.

The fundamental problem is an uncertainty of tone. From the start, a (typically) elaborate scene in which Neruda and the President of Chile trade insults, in a set that seems part seat of government, part urinal, proceedings seem the have more than an edge of satire, but to also be pretty serious. It looks like Neruda is about to get into bad trouble. This becomes more problematic for the gringo viewer whose knowledge of the history is limited. We can understand the Seventies. Dictatorship is an easy thing to grasp. But these are the Forties (signaled more by the cars than anything else), and we don't know what was going on in Chile then. Neruda boasts of being a communist - the thing that's going to lead to orders for his arrest (and the real or imaginary Óscar Peluchonneau's setting out to find him). But at the same time he doesn't seem to take being a communist seriously.

I do like the idea of this relationship between a noble victim and García Bernal's dapper little mustachioed martinet of a cop who keeps almost finding him, and ends falling down in the snows of the Andes. These scenes and many others are gorgeously photographed: snow has rarely looked prettier. The mock-serious, deadly dangerous yet laughable, setup is one that Nabokov used in a number of his novels, and I can best understand what Larraín was trying to do by seeing this as a Nabokovian tragicomedy. I also liked seeing pretty-boy García Bernal play a more mature, and less flattering, role. Peluchonneau's's lonely scenes are in stark contrast to the more cluttered sequences involving Neruda and entourage, as they must since the two men never come directly into contact.

Neruda, 107 mins., debuted at Cannes Directors Fortnight May 2016; at least 14 other international festivals including Telluride, Toronto, New York and Mill Valley. It is to be Chile's entry in the Best Foreign Oscar competition. US theatrical release to begin 16 Dec. 2016. In NYC at the Film Society at Lincoln Center and IFC Center.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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