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.
This was the weakest of the films I saw on my first day, but it was the one that got the most audience applause. I’ve never properly watched The Daily Show which made the name of début writer/director John Stewart, so I was primarily attracted to the appearance of Gael García Marquez and Kim Bodnia (from The Bridge) as the two main characters.
There is nothing wrong with the film as such and it is clearly a project with its heart in the right place. Bernal plays the Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, whose book of his experiences covering the 2009 election in Iran, rigged by the authorities, was the original property adapted by Stewart. He is arrested and imprisoned and Bodnia is the ‘specialist’ assigned to extract a confession that will be broadcast as part of the regime’s propaganda. All of this is well done, shot in Jordan as far as I can make out. Apart from a spoof interview that could be part of a comedy show, Stewart plays it all straight – although I did like the appearance of the journalist’s dead father in his cell offering advice on how to survive based on his own incarceration under previous regimes. Bahari’s dead sister also appears.
The only real problem is that we’ve seen this before and Iranian stories told from the US, even when they use a couple of strong Iranian actors (the mother and sister here), find it difficult to compete with the real thing. Films by Jafar Panahi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf cover similar territory in much more oblique and powerful ways. Stewart’s film is primarily delivered in English so it will reach a wider public and that is good if it heightens awareness. It’s also good that a film about the real bravery of journalists worldwide should find an audience. Perhaps it can act as an introduction to the complexities and, despite the horrors, the ‘pleasures’ of the terrific Iranian cinema of the last twenty years, which is able to use subtle forms of humour to undermine the regime?
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.