Tuesday, August 29, 2017

NERUDA (2016)

Pablo Larrain has picked up his pace lately. The Chilean director, who made his name globally with a trilogy of films set during the Pinochet era in his country, cranked out three features in 2015-16, including his Hollywood debut Jackie. For the home audience, the man who may already be Chile's greatest director took on arguably Chile's greatest writer, the 20th century poet Pablo Neruda. Neruda, however, is less the poet's life entire than an episode filmed with awareness of its own fictionalization. Neruda was a politician as well as a poet and, like many of his type in those days, a Communist, shown early proposing a toast to the Red Army for defeating fascism. As a Communist, Neruda (Luis Gnecco) was elected to the Chilean Senate, only to find himself outlawed during a crackdown on the left. The story of the film is his flight into French exile -- where he's idolized by the likes of Picasso -- involving various disguises and the help of a cross-section of Chilean culture. The added detail is his pursuit by an obsessed government agent (Gael Garcia Bernal), whose voiceover narration is no doubt instantly reminiscent of film noir even for non-American audiences.

Larrain apparently set himself a task for 2016 to rehabilitate the biopic. The genre has fallen into disdain, at least with American critics who decry the Academy's tendency to bestow Oscars on performances that seem mainly imitative over those that appear genuinely creative, e.g. Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in Theory of Everything over Michael Keaton in Birdman in 2014. Ironically, an arguably worthy biopic performance by Natalie Portman in Larrain's Jackie was ignored in the rush to honor La La Land at the last awards. Neruda shares with the American film an emphasis on its subject's less iconic, perhaps less admirable side, which creates the impression that the actor is interpreting rather than imitating. The Neruda of the film is as much a self-indulgent sensualist, for a fat guy, as he is The People's Poet, someone whose utopian vision is more hedonist than Stalinist, despite his shameful partisan praise for the Soviet despot. This side of the hero gives his trek an almost mock-epic quality that is only augmented by the detective's mock-noir pursuit. It ends up being hard to think of Neruda as a hero, but that's the uncanny think about art, and his clearly inspired lots of people.

The mock-epic turns tragic when the detective dies in the snow during the chase, and Neruda reveals its true concern with who'll have the last word on history. Its own stance on Pablo Neruda will be problematic for some observers already because of Larrain's apparent indifference to the poet's opinion of Stalin. By putting anti-communist commentary in the noirish narrative of the doomed detective, Larrain and screenwriter Guillermo Calderon suggest that the anti-communist narrative of Neruda's career is not only fatally flawed but also generic, like noir, in the particularly limited sense of that word. Worse for the antagonist, he dies with something between fear and faith that Neruda will have the last word on his life, that he'll be remembered, if at all, as a supporting character in the poet's story, if not as a subject for his art. In a way, the fatal pursuit into the mountains is a metaphor for efforts presumably ongoing, in Chile and elsewhere, to define Neruda as a villain, or at least a fool, for his communist leanings. Neruda projects a confidence that the poet's art, if not the whole of his complex personality, will outlast the hunt.

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