Neruda is the latest of several films by Chilean director Pablo Larrain to focus on moments during Chile’s turbulent political struggles between the 1940s and the death of the former dictator Augusto Pinochet in 2006. Larrain’s approach is through a focus on certain characters, either closely involved in the events of the period or perhaps engaged in something that might be read as a metaphor for everyday life in Chile at that time. One of these films, No (2011), is discussed elsewhere on this blog. Immediately after completing Neruda, Larrain directed Jackie (Chile-France-US 2016). Jackie portrayed Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination, mainly through the device of the former First Lady giving an interview to a journalist. If you are unaware of how Pablo Larrain has approached historical figures and historical events in his films, you may be thrown by a film like Neruda.
Pablo Neruda (1904-73), real name Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, was an extraordinary figure, a poet-diplomat who took his pen-name from Czech poet Jan Neruda (1834-91). Pablo was a poet from age 10 who could communicate directly with the Chilean working-class and was a Communist elected as a Senator. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971 and perished in mysterious circumstances during the suppression of Salvador Allende’s legitimate government in 1973. Neruda was being treated for cancer but suspicions remain that he was murdered by a doctor on the orders of General Pinochet.
Larrain’s film is not, as might be expected, a straight biopic. Instead it follows Neruda over a few months in 1948 when, as a Communist, he became vulnerable to the forces loyal to the new President, Gabriel González Videla a supposed leftist who then turned towards anti-communism in order to court American support. Neruda denounced this move and became a marked man. All this is represented accurately in the film, but Neruda’s actions then become fictionalised and Larrain creates a narrative in which Neruda plays cat and mouse games with a police detective charged by the President with arresting him. This character, Óscar Peluchonneau played by Gael García Bernal, is fictional. Neruda (played in a bravura performance by Luis Gnecco) leads the detective a merry dance, at first accompanied by his lover, the artist Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), and then on his own. Neruda was a larger than life character who enjoyed fine wines and fine clothes but was capable of writing poems which could rouse crowds from every section of Chilean society as the film demonstrates very well. The fictional story includes the ‘real’ escape of Neruda to Argentina across the mountains.
The film is always watchable and I enjoyed it very much. The camera seems to be constantly moving as Neruda moves from one hideout to another. In one extraordinary sequence we meet a young Pinochet, but our main attention is on the detective. He’s an extraordinary character who is constantly attempting to confirm his own identity as a man who is the bastard son of a famous detective. With his fedora and thin moustache he appears like a character out of a US film noir. Neruda ‘plays’ with this character, leading him on with a trail of detective novels which the detective can’t resist reading. The detective’s name in Spanish apparently means ‘stuffed toy’ and this makes sense when the narrative twist is revealed. In the meantime, Neruda emphasises this play by ‘dressing up’ and slipping away in disguise as the detective approaches. I’m not quite sure what this all means (apart from making a commentary on political figures) but it is certainly entertaining and if it introduces audiences to some of the real history of what happened in Chile, that can’t be a bad thing. If only our politicians today were half as interesting as Pablo Neruda.
Another first feature by a female filmmaker from South America, Rara followed Alba and offered ¡Viva! audiences a third young teenager’s struggles in a family group. In this case the family group is intact, but following a divorce, lawyer Paula (Mariana Loyola) is living with Lia (Agustina Muñoz), a vet. The central character is Sara (Julia Lübbert), who with her younger sister Catalina (Emilia Ossandon) is getting used to the new family arrangements – which involve visits to her father’s new household. Like Alba this is a first feature. Director Pepa San Martín had also previously made two short films and her first feature was co-written with the experienced Alicia Scherson. I think the best way to describe the film is as a family drama with comedic elements. Watching it I did feel that many scenes would have worked in situation comedies and television comedy drama series. This is not in any way a criticism. In the UK these types of narrative forms have often been where women writers have had most success and established themselves. I thoroughly enjoyed Rara and found many aspects of it impressive. My only concern was that the narrative as a whole didn’t seem to be completely coherent. I wondered if I was misreading some scenes.
Rara doesn’t announce where it is set until the first mention of ‘the capital’, Santiago and the implication that we are outside the capital (and actually in Viña del Mar, north of Valparaiso). When I checked after the screening I discovered that civil partnerships between same sex partners were made legal in Chile in 2015 and that moves to legalise same sex marriage are current under the presidency of Michelle Bachelet. Rara is clearly a topical film and this perhaps explains the background to what is ostensibly a youth picture about Sara and her approaching 13th birthday – her first since having braces removed with the promise of kissing to enjoy. Much of the narrative is taken up by Sara’s vacillation over how to celebrate her birthday. Should she have a small party in her mother’s house or a bigger party (planned by her close schoolfriend), possibly in her father’s new house? She has other relationships to worry about as well – her first possible boyfriend at school and her sometimes difficult times with her younger sister. Catalina is always likely to steal the narrative limelight – especially when a stray ginger kitten appears. But these questions about the party (and at one point the cat) also have implications for the two families. Whether Sara understands what her actions might provoke is unclear, but they give her father and his new wife some possible opportunities to develop a case for custody of the two girls. The new status of same sex partnerships has not been universally welcomed and some of the staff and students at school aren’t totally supportive. It’s all too easy to say the wrong thing or to react without thinking. According to the review on the Queer Guru website, the story is:
actually based on the true story in 2004 when a Chilean Judge lost custody of her own children purely on the basis of her sexuality. Rara (which means ‘sad’) stops before the trial begins . . .
The Hollywood Reporter review suggests that ‘Rara’ means strange. Either way, the script has to present Paula’s family as ‘just like other families’ – which it clearly is – but also to subtly indicate why problems might arise and the first indication is when Catalina’s drawing of her family shows her two mothers. She has actually left off her gran, Pancha – another mother whose conservatism makes her less supportive than she might be. A UK review by Isabelle Milton makes a good point in noting that in some sequences showing Sara in school, the use of long tracking shots seems to suggest an art cinema sensibility that is not supported by more familiar generic scenes such as dancing to pop music in a bedroom. The character of the father (played by Daniel Muñoz) seemed less well-drawn than the other main characters and I couldn’t ‘read’ his behaviour in some scenes. Is he playing ‘weak’ to disguise his intentions, is he simply ‘mild-mannered’? A colleague suggested he seemed ‘feminised’. This added to my sense of a slight incoherence.
Shot in CinemaScope and running at a concise 88 minutes, Rara is nevertheless an enjoyable film to watch with many excellent performances, especially by the two young sisters. It seems to have been released in Italy, Mexico and Spain with France to come and I hope it opens in more territories. Here is a trailer (with English subs) which perhaps pushes the conservative comments about sexuality harder than in the film itself:
and here is the Chilean trailer (no subs):
and here’s a long interview (with translation) from the Berlin Film Festival screening:
Jackie is a surprising film. I found it to be a riveting watch and it left me strangely uplifted but also puzzled. I’m not sure what immediate conclusions, if any, I came to except that I’m glad I saw it on a big screen. It’s a film about a moment of American history that resonated around the world for those of us alive in 1963 and that has been ‘re-presented’ in different ways ever since. But though this is an American event, it doesn’t feel like an American film, or at least it doesn’t seem to belong to either Hollywood or American Independent Cinema, despite the involvement of several US producers. Instead, this is essentially a French film directed by the Chilean auteur Pablo Larrain. The script and the impressive cast are mainly American but the creative personnel supporting Larrain are European. The best known of the production companies involved, the French company Why Not Productions, has been involved in the recent films of Jacques Audiard and Ken Loach. In what follows I try to analyse my response.
The opening frames of the film set me trying to calculate the aspect ratio. In our local cinema that is usually proud of its presentation procedures, the image was not properly masked. Eventually I realised that it was set as 1.66:1, that odd ratio favoured by some European and British producers for many years after the development of widescreen processes in the 1950s. It was only later that the lack of masking reminded me of a similar problem with Pablo Larrain’s earlier film No (Chile-US-France-Mexico 2011). The way cinema projection boxes are set up for DCPs now means that the projected image is set to 1.85:1 with the smaller 1.66:1 framing inside it. When the image is bright and the film frame is not masked, the letterboxing at the sides is always visible as dark grey and I found it distracting. The irony is that Jackie was shot on Super 16 film, giving the image a slightly grainier and less sharp/bright feel than a digital original image. To add to the disturbance of the framing and image texture, the score by the British composer Mica Levy (best known for her score for Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin) and some of the compositions by DoP Stéphane Fontaine are equally unsettling. Together they set up very well the performances by the actors and especially that of Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy.
Jackie is routinely described as a ‘biopic’ by reviewers. But I don’t buy this. A biopic needs to cover a substantial part of a subject’s life with at least some reference to childhood and other key stages in the development of the adult persona. Jackie focuses on not much more than one intensely dramatic week of the life of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy plus some occasional references to earlier events. The narrative structure is such that these events are discussed in retrospect in an interview given to a journalist (such an interview was conducted by Theodore H White for Life magazine in 1964) in the rather austere surroundings of a house in the Kennedy ‘homeland’ of Hiyannis Port in Massachusetts.
The original choice for the director of the film was Darren Aranovsky who later became one of several producers. He is reported to have told Natalie Portman that the key to the film was Jackie’s voice. The character is in virtually every scene and must go through some terrible experiences. Portman appears to have responded fully to his comment in her study of Jackie Kennedy and her delivery has become one of the talking points of the film. Portman does not ‘resemble’ Mrs Kennedy, either facially or in her body shape. The hairstyle and the iconic Chanel suits certainly help to create the character but a lot depends on the voice and on Portman’s performance skills. I have no memory of hearing Jackie Kennedy speak so the only signifier for me was when Portman shifts her voice between the soft, breathy and almost girlish ‘public voice’ of the character and the more clipped and authoritative voice she uses for the ‘behind the scenes’ moments. Overall, I found the performance convincing. I didn’t know much about Jackie before I saw the film and what I learned from the film and subsequently through research I found interesting.
It seems to me that the film illustrates two main points. The first is that there is humanity even in the processes inside the White House and the Presidency. Everyone treats Jackie and her children with respect even as a new administration has to begin. I’m not sure how ‘true’ or ‘realistic’ this is. In one scene Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) orders everyone, including President Johnson, to sit down when Jackie is under stress. Johnson is represented as an amenable figure – which belies the stories of his anger and violent language, though the camera does hint at what he and Ladybird might be saying off screen/off microphone. Personally, I found the scenes of Jackie coping with her grief and the procedures she had to follow quite moving. The other main theme of the film is Jackie’s attempt to create the image of JFK’s legacy. She did this as a continuation of her earlier attempts to redecorate the White House and to learn from the history of other presidential figures. We can see this theme played out both in her determination to organise an appropriate state funeral and burial at Arlington and in the way she conducts the interview with the journalist (played by Billy Crudup with a distinct swagger). Again, I rather admired Jackie as a character and Natalie Portman’s performance.
I’m grateful to Nick Lacey, my viewing partner, who found this useful interview with Stéphane Fontaine on ‘No Film School’. It was Nick who spotted the use of 16mm and in the interview Fontaine explains how he and Pablo Larrain approached the shoot which was mainly in a Paris studio with only a few exteriors in Washington. Larrain went so far as to bring an old three-tube video camera (as used in No) from Chile to Paris in an attempt to ‘insert’ Portman into the 1962 video recording of Mrs Kennedy offering TV viewers a tour around the White House – one of the pre-assassination sequences included to help build Jackie’s persona as a character. The film’s whole budget is listed as $9 million on IMDB which seems extraordinary (it’s quite a lot less than most mainstream French features). All I can say is well done to cast and crew. If you are interested in cinematography this interview is a must.
In conclusion, Jackie is a terrific emotional narrative with a stunning central performance and very good support from a talented supporting cast (including Greta Gerwig, Richard E. Grant and John Hurt). I suspect it will surprise many audiences. I just hope they are open to the approach adopted by Pablo Larrain and his crew and prepared to learn a bit more about an era and a group of historical figures who they think they might already know well.
Here’s a promotional clip from the film in which Jackie fights for the funeral parade she wants:
This clip from a 1961 TV interview reveals not just the real Mrs Kennedy’s’s speaking voice, but also her historical knowledge about the White House. Some of her statements are used verbatim in the new film.
This is scheduled for a UK release in the next couple of weeks. It’s the best film I’ve seen this year and I’m now going to have to go back and watch director Patricio Guzmán’s previous film Nostalgia For the Light (2010). But then, Guzmán’s been making films since 1968 so I’ve got a lot to learn. Why is this film so good? Partly it is because of the sheer skill in combining sets of ideas – ideas about the importance of coastlines and water to the inhabitants of Chile, a long thin country with both the driest and wettest areas on earth; ideas about the culture of indigenous peoples and the genocide suffered under colonialism/imperialism; ideas about the Chilean version of fascism and the brutality of the smashing of democracy – so that a seamless narrative seems to be being constructed. It’s about the beauty and the horror of images, the testament of survivors, the honesty of those who ‘followed orders’ and so much more.
The film is only 82 minutes long but this is a beautifully-edited documentary that flows effortlessly and logically through its powerful arguments so you hardly realise just how much you are absorbing and learning. The ‘pearl button’ of the title is the tiny object that almost magically ties together the two historical narratives. I feel that I don’t want to reveal how the narrative works because that would spoil the impact of the connection. What struck me most forcefully (apart from all the facts about Chile that I didn’t know) was the terrible universality of the two historical narratives.
Before the arrival of the Europeans the indigenous peoples of the Patagonian archipelago had a developed nomadic maritime culture which was based on an understanding of astronomy and the seas around the islands. The people fished from canoes and moved freely between islands. The culture survived until the start of the 20th century when the few thousand strong Kawésqar nation was decimated by European diseases and attacks by settlers. Only a few survivors in the 21st century can still speak the language. Guzmán’s presentation of this history brings to mind Jauja (Argentina-Denmark 2014) and Indigenous films from Australia as well as other narratives from Africa and the rest of the Americas – I’m sure similar histories exist in parts of Asia as well. Guzman is something of an expert in uncovering the evidence of the brutality of the Pinochet regime in Chile from 1973 to 1990. Here he manages to link what happened to the supporters of the democratically-elected President Allende to the destruction of indigenous Patagonian culture. One of the major islands of the archipelago, Dawson Island was first used by Chilean settlers to intern indigenous people (the Selk’nam) evicted from land required for sheep grazing. After 1973 Pinochet used the island to intern civil servants and others associated with Allende and Guzman presents evidence that some of these internees were thrown into the sea from helicopters – a terrible symmetry in terms of the importance of the waters to Chile.
This film is riveting viewing, I hope it draws large audiences when it reaches cinemas. It comes out on March 18th in the UK from New Wave Films. Find out where it is playing near you from this website.
I missed the opening few minutes of this film but as it is a ‘re-imagining’ of the plot of Vertigo I can make a reasonable guess as to how it begins. The Jimmy Stewart role is played by Juan Pablo Correa who is known as ‘Fatso’ to his friends, principally Lore who might be in Hitchcock’s Barbara Bel Geddes role. The trauma suffered by Ramiro involves a car crash and the woman he is asked to investigate is a local rock star who once played with a band called ‘Kocks’ (!). Ramiro is supposedly a journalist so he is contracted to write her biography. Writer-director Elisa Eliash is quoted as saying that she wrote the script quickly as an experiment and that partly explains why the narrative leaps backwards and forwards in time (see Press quotes on the film’s website). This suggests that the film might be difficult to watch but although I certainly wasn’t always sure what was going on, I always found the film engaging. Partly this is because Ramiro is a rather loveable character, but one not without faults. It’s very difficult for the other characters (and the audience) to know when he is telling the ‘truth’ and when he is fantasising. It’s good to see such an overweight character as the lead in a film like this and his physical problems (sweating, overeating/nausea etc.) aren’t avoided so he becomes a human rather than fantasy figure.
The film is set in Providencia which Wikipedia informs me is a city just outside Santiago which is an enclave of the upper middle-class. We don’t see that aspect of the city but we do get to enjoy some of the parks and coffee shops. Even so there is an inexplicable scene in which the water cannon are out on the streets recalling scenes from No (Chile 2011) which was successful last year in the UK. The Kim Novak role goes to María José Siebald as Ana/Valentina whose ‘makeover’ is aided by a blonde wig. As with many other aspects of the film, her interest in archery is an original idea and is developed as a symbolic element of the film’s credits – Valentina attempts to teach Ramiro to fire an arrow at a target but it sails into the distance with no sense of where it might end up.
Aqui estoy, aqui no appears to have been very successful in Chile and has been shown extensively in festivals across Latin America. As far as I can see it had only previously been at Cairo’s festival before its Bradford screening so I’m intrigued as to how the BIFF programmers found it. I’m glad they did. I enjoyed what seems to me to be an original comedy with a commercial bent. I hope it gets more exposure in Europe.
I don’t think I’ve seen a film by the Chilean director Andrés Wood before and I wasn’t familiar with the work of the subject of this film Violeta Parra (1917-67). Wood’s 2004 film Machuca has been on my waiting list for films to watch on DVD for some time so I jumped at the chance to see this new film which was the Chilean entry for the 2013 Foreign Language Oscar.
Violeta turns out to be an unusual form of biopic. Music (or more generally ‘artist’) biopics have tended to replace the 1930s and 1940s fascination with politicians and national heroes. Conventional films of this genre feature familiar aspects of the artist’s life – discovery, first success, fame, struggles with integrity, decline etc. Wood offers something very different, ‘layering’ snatches of Violeta’s career one on top of another, out of chronological order, in such a way that we build up an impression of passionate and proud artist, not prepared to put up with audiences or commissioners who don’t appreciate her work. We keep returning to an interview on television in 1962 in which she responds to a particularly unpleasant interviewer. She came from a poor background and she attempted to keep alive aspects of Chilean folk culture in her music and her painting. She performed in Poland and painted in Paris and she fought the conservative establishment in Chile. She died before the dictatorship of Pinochet attacked many of her fellow artists. No hagiography this, it shows Violeta as a woman with desire, anger and demons whose relationships with her children were not straightforward – the script is based on writings by her son. The film looks good with cinematographer Miguel Ioann Littin Menz finding ways to represent the dusty plains and Andes trails of Chile as well as Paris and other locations.
Violeta Parra was a major figure in Chilean culture, I have discovered. She led performers into a New Chilean Song movement of folk-based socially committed music which spread throughout Latin America and throughout Iberian culture generally from the 1960s. I’ve no idea whether or not Francisca Gavilán’s portrayal is ‘authentic’ but it certainly worked for me and her performance of many of Violeta’s songs was stunning – I was especially taken by the songs delivered in a powerful voice of thudding drum beats which were quite mesmerising. But perhaps the most dramatic song in the film is about the Sparrowhawk and the Hen – a song with metaphorical meaning for Violeta. Cornerhouse Cinema 2 was packed for the screening but I don’t know if there is a distributor prepared to release a title like this in the UK. Unlike the Frida Kahlo biopic Frida (US 2002) there are no star names known in Europe and North America. Violeta se fue a los cielos is showing again in Viva at 20.40 on Saturday evening and it is well worth a visit. I should see it again.
Like the Chilean director’s earlier films, No is set during the military dictatorship presided over by General Pinochet. We are right at the end when the Junta bowed to international pressure and organised a Referendum. To the surprise of the military, observers and many Chileans it lost this plebiscite. An important factor was the campaign, fronted by fifteen minutes daily on national television, to vote ‘No’. The campaign relied to a large degree on professional public relations experts. It is that campaign that is the central focus of this film.
It is a film definitely worth seeing. At times humorous, at time dramatic, it had an excellent cast headed by Gael García Bernal. The film includes footage showing the coup and the brutal repression of the Chilean working class and their organisations and parties. It also uses the actual television material from both right and left in the Referendum campaign: at times impressive, at times banal, and at time almost surreal.
The film was shot on a 1983 U-matic video camera, which gives a fairly uniform appearance to both the filmed footage and the archive material. The whole film has a sharp, tawdry look due to this. In fact, Pablo Larrain’s earlier Tony Manero had a low-budget tawdry feel which also matched its subject matter.
My major reservation was a rather lightweight political stance. This seems to follow on from the approach that was adopted in the actual television campaign in 1988. And there are clearly strands of irony in the presentation. But there is not a developed sense of the politics of the different class fractions and factions involved. Terms like ‘communist’, ‘socialist’ and ‘fascist’ recur frequently. However both the left and the right at this moment were somewhat disparate coalitions of differing social forces, and this the film misses out on illuminating this. Certainly other films from Chile have managed to deal effectively with the political landscape under the dictatorship. I also felt that the film subscribes to a view that probably over-emphasises the contribution of the television adverts: but the absence of other factors in its plotting also contributes to this lack of overall illumination.
My other reservation was technical and may only apply to the UK release. The U-matic video format gives an aspect ratio of 1.33:1: the ratio that preceded sound film, when the addition of an optical track produced 1.37:1. In the UK (and presumably in most territories) the film is distributed as a Digital Cinema Package. This comes (I think I am right) in a standard 1.85:1, with other ratios printed within the standard format. For 1.33 or 1.37 you get the central image bordered by black framing. On 35mm the projectionist could adjust the framing to the ratio: on DCP it comes ‘baked in’. Good quality cinema presentation involved bringing the black masking to frame the appropriate ratio. This is what usually happens at the Hyde Park Picture House where I viewed this film. They also continue the honourable tradition of opening the curtains at the start of the screening. Not so with No. For some odd reason the subtitles (in yellow) have been printed so that they frequently extend beyond the 1.33 ratio into the black borders. This means the black masking is unusable. Why, I don’t know, though it did seem that the font of the subtitles was larger than usual. I found this very distracting. I can usually flick my eyes up and down to accommodate both the image and the titles: with this film I had to flick to left and right to read all of the titles. I actually missed a few. The film is distributed by Network Releasing, but I could not see an end credit for titling, so I am not sure who is responsible.
So I feel it is a bit of a problematic movie, certainly in the UK. But it is still worth seeing. It is a distinctive film with a distinctive subject matter.