In a recent year-end contribution, I noted that one of the more illuminating trends in cinema includes the proficiency of certain filmmakers and their craft. Denis Villeneuve seems to be on track for at least a film a year. Indie-turned-Hollywood-blockbuster auteur David Lowery will have two films released in about six months (Pete’s Dragon this past summer and Sundance-slotted A Ghost Story next week). Two Jeff Nichols films, the unique sci-fi experiment Midnight Special and the spectacular, biographical Loving, hit theaters within five months of each other.
But the real hardworking star of the year has to be Chilean director Pablo Larrain, who manned not two but three films this year, starting with The Club (an austere portrait of priesthood abuse and its searing ramifications) in early March and then Jackie and Neruda this winter.
Taken as companion films, Jackie and Neruda work best in the way they compliment each other. Both films take prominent historical figures and then pare them down to a finite moment in time, fracturing everything else around them and creating a prismatic, almost artificial world.
In Jackie, the focus is on the week or so after the assassination of JFK and how his widow, Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman), dealt with the encroaching numbness of loss and her duty as a political remnant of her husband’s legacy. Chain-smoking and woozy but utterly committed to her actions, Larrain’s mise-en-scene barely leaves the tiny shoulders of Portman for the film’s running time. It’s a suffocating but effective performance (and film) that pushes us deep into the haze of one of our nation’s darkest hours.
If Jackie is startling coming from an outsider like Larrain, Neruda is certainly more akin to his nationalistic pride. Yet, like that other film, he chooses to focus not on the Chilean-born poet’s early life, work or ascension to popularity among the country’s liberals and intellects, but on his waning days as a politician in hiding from a changed government.
In fact, Pablo Neruda (played by Luis Gnecco) barely rises beyond supporting player in his own story. The second half of the film concentrates its gaze on Inspector Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal), entrusted to hunt down the Communist senator. It becomes his voice over – spoken like a hard-boiled film noir commentary with bouts of Neruda’s humanist prose sprinkled throughout – and perspective that overtakes the film.
Yet before going there, Neruda expands on the Communist poet and diplomat’s persona as he enjoys the fruits of his popularity at vibrant house parties and whorehouses. His lavish lifestyle soon comes crashing down when a warrant is issued for his arrest by the new iteration of Chilean government in 1948. Forced to spend the next year in hiding with sympathizers and friends, Neruda and his partner, Delia del Carril (Mercedes Moran), are reduced to a scrambled lifestyle of basement dwellings and last-minute getaways.
Next to the cat and mouse game played between Neruda and Inspector Peluchonneau, the relationship between Neruda and del Carril is the most fascinating. Does she ignore or endure his lifestyle? It’s telling how much she respects him – but perhaps doesn’t love him? – when she comes in contact with the Inspector in one muted scene.
It’s only after the scene that Neruda basically kicks its namesake out of the frame, focusing on Gael Garcia Bernal. So ably embodying the ad man who conjures up a scheme to try and defeat Pinochet in the late 80’s in Larrain’s No (2014), it’s obvious the actor and director make a spirited pair. Bernal floats through Neruda like a trenchoat ghost, part Lemmy Caution in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) and part Humphrey Bogart’s man on a mission, complete with superfluous voice-over and lofty ideals about his place in history. It’s odd to see a minor character slowly overpower the narrative of Neruda, but Larrain and Bernal make it work.
Less successful is the cult of personality around Neruda himself. Played by Gnecco in a boisterous and larger than life manner, I didn’t find myself drawn to him as anything other than a political pawn, drunk on his excessive influence and liberal power. Perhaps the most revolutionary thing about Neruda is creating sympathy for the character charged with bringing down the anti-hero. Having known very little about Pablo Neruda, Larrain’s effort doesn’t seem to care about enlightening anyone, which is a feeling I never got from his previous efforts on Chile’s tumultuous past with the regimes of Allende and Pinochet.
Ultimately, if I find Jackie to be the better of the two films, perhaps its because I’m more aware of the film’s historical geography. Couched inside an immaculately designed White House, her story is more personal and more urgent to me. Regardless, both films would make an ideal double feature on the idiosyncratic ways a filmmaker can re-invent the biographical drama and stir our perspectives during the process.
Neruda opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, January 27 at the Angelika Dallas Film Center.