Saturday 20 August 2016

Cine Latino Film Festival (2) - Max Berghouse, and Peter Hourigan, add further thoughts on Pablo Larrain's biopic NERUDA

Neruda (Chile, 2016). Pablo Larrain (Director),Guillermo Calderon (Script), Renan Artukmac, Peter Danner, Fernanda Del Nido (and 11 others) (Producers). Federico Jusid (Film Score).
With: Gael Garcia Bernal (Oscar Peluchonneau/Prefect of Police), Luis Gnecco (Pablo Neruda), Mercedes Moran (Delia dell Carril/wife to Neruda) and Alfredo Castro (Gabriel Gonzalez Videla/President of Chile).

I saw this film as part of the current Cine Latino Film Festival and the showing was immediately preceded by a short video introduction by the director, explaining his absence from the festival because the film was commencing its release in Chile itself. I have noticed in recent times something of a feature being made of the absence of a director by the use of such a short introduction. Ultimately I don't find the presence of an artist particularly meaningful because what I want to see is the film or artistic work itself. Directors it seems to me are very elliptic when it comes to explaining their craft or their individual film. However, if anyone ought to be able to make a convincing short introduction, it should be a director. The normal rules of scripting, acting, presentation and lighting are just as important to convey veracity and reliability as they are in a film itself.  Here, it's sufficient to say that the director was entirely unconvincing and, relatively speaking, unwelcome by his presence. This may be relevant to my review.

All of the director's prior works and the current production are riffs on themes of authoritarianism within his native country, Chile. He is clearly no friend to either authoritarianism nor totalitarianism. To the extent that one can guess, since his father is a member of the Chilean Senate as a Conservative, it's possible that he is a moderate right-winger. He has however indicated that he has no sympathy with the character of Gen Pinochet and thus could not make a film about him.

The genre of autobiographical films seems currently to be rather a desert. In years gone by, especially in the classic period of cinema, such films were frequent (even if highly fictionalised). With more modern access to quality media, a straightforward autobiography, starting at some incipient age and moving to "fulfilment", success or death or whatever, is unlikely to hold much interest. A modern but scarcely compelling variation of this linear narrative is the general Hollywood reliance in such films on some sort of Freudian precepts in which the protagonist' s filmic journey is traced from and caused by some particular psychic shock, often when young. Hollywood must be the only place where such Freudian analysis holds any sway at all. So the format of the current film must be considered interesting.

Neruda the poet is certainly an historic figure and the film is ostensibly concerned with the period in 1948 when he, an incoming senator to the Chilean congress, as an overt Communist, in the ticket of the incoming president Videla, is ostracised by the President following alleged pressure from the USA. I don't know about such pressure, but don't doubt it as such and such an issue has always been a lively cause of debate in Latin America. Neruda goes into hiding and after more than a year escapes overseas, but does return subsequently. To these historical barebones, presumably there is some creative license in the portrayal.

Intersecting with this "historical" narrative is the attempt by Oscar to find the hidden Neruda, but this aspect is entirely fictional. Perhaps there is some semblance of truth, based on some historical character or characters, but it seems to be accepted that this part is entirely fictional and that this part both exists in its own right – as a separate story, and thus to some extent comments on the "Neruda story".

No attempt is made to gloss over the frailties and imperfections of Neruda. The actor Luis Gnecco, principally a comedian, but with a striking resemblance to the real-life person deliberately, for the film added about 25 kg in weight to resemble the very corpulent Neruda. It is a very fine performance, although without much subtlety. Neruda was born to poverty but was a published poet (in a culture where poetry is much more recognised publicly than in for example Anglo-Saxon cultures) as a very young child and was famous for practically all his life. He was an unrepentant Stalinist till the day he died, was grossly unfaithful to his three wives/companions and generally a bad father. As best he could throughout his life, he lived a hedonistic and upper-class life. Every inch the "Gucci socialist", the sort who feels sympathy for the poor, provided they don't want to live next door. In particular he shows quite considerable disdain for those within the Communist Party who are charged with protecting him in hiding. He comments adversely on the middle-class accommodation he has been forced to live in even though one such place is the apartment of a fraternal Communist comrade. Invariably when travelling by car Neruda and Delia travel in the back seat. Even in the very last scenes when Neruda is being helped in his final escape, his suitcase is carried by somebody else.

All this is explained and commented on by Oscar in voice over,  a very efficient means of imparting information but scarcely dramatic. Oscar's voice-over, commenting on his own life, on that of Neruda and external circumstances in the troubled country, continues throughout the film, to my continuing and increasing annoyance. Oscar is revealed to be a solid supporter of the government (which by the way was democratically elected) and is revealed to be illegitimate, the son of a prostitute and he, Oscar, or perhaps his mother, has adopted the surname, that of a previous police chief of the same name, possibly because that is really the name of his father, or perhaps because it simply advances his career. This is the contrast which one can work out, although it's not especially easy, between the two protagonists. Neruda came from nothing but was clearly "somebody". Whether he lives or ultimately dies, his reputation makes him eternal. Oscar on the other hand came from nothing and remains nothing. His dedication to his job, as he seemed to lead an extremely barren private life, counts for nothing.

In the chase which occupies most of the film, Neruda is revealed as liking intensely, cheap crime and detective novels. At conspicuous points, he leaves copies of such novels to be found by Oscar and for him to read them, such that (and this is revealed by Delia) that to some conspicuous extent, Neruda is "creating" the detective' s existence. Another alternative favoured by some indicates that Oscar is entirely the creation of Neruda's mind and he, as it were, creates himself as the escaping hero in a detective novel in his own mind. Ultimately, whether real or created, Oscar dies badly and alone. Yet he is "revived", in the sense that he achieves some sort of eternal life, because he is a reflection of Neruda. Whichever interpretation one takes of the "Oscar story" it is a very interesting take on a filmic form, the autobiographical film, which has grown overwhelmingly stale. I don't think it was entirely successful, but it was certainly interesting.

What I was left with was my recollection on the play and film Amadeus (Milos, Forman, USA, 1984 ) a work reflecting upon the nature of artistic creativity. Salieri, the dutiful and hard-working ordinary man, is constantly challenged in his belief in a beneficent deity by His giving so much talent to someone (Mozart) who is overtly unworthy of the gifts given him. It is the same "problem" between Neruda and Oscar.

The director has used most of the actors before and generally gets fine performances. Mr Bernal, obviously a very fine actor nonetheless appears to me to be unhappy or at least not particularly content with his creation of Oscar. Despite being an obsessive investigator, he is frequently dishevelled in appearance and wears a very battered and I think unsuitable hat. He has as well a moustache which may have been required to give his very youthful face the appearance of greater gravity (and moustaches appear to be rather more common in Latin America, certainly in this period). Some actors seem to be entirely comfortable in "historic" costume and by now I think we should accept the 1940s is such an historic period. Errol Flynn comes to mind. But Mr Bernal is not such a person.

There are numbers of small behaviour patterns that relatively close viewing of classic cinema would reveal are consistently ignored by the mostly male cast. Everyone in those days wore hats, but they took them off as soon as they were inside. Nearly everyone wore a topcoat, generally gabardine and that too was removed as soon as one was inside. Jackets were always kept buttoned in public. There is one quite ludicrous scene with Oscar working at his desk, battered fedora still on his head, for all the world like a gumshoe as envisaged by John Huston. Referential but not convincing.

Considering it's a period substantially before my own birth, it seems accurately displayed. Cars of the period are the most ostensible means of creating the period. I'm no expert on classic US cars and only a few (I think) were made subsequent to 1948, the period of the film. Cinematography is opulent and frequently lush. Neruda's being driven across the barren desert into the Andes and hopefully over into Argentina, is a wondrously realised and macabre sight of black stone. The film score as noted above implies originality but there are some excerpts from classical music, certainly by Mendelssohn and (?) Edvard Greig, which I think are more impressive than the original film score. Where classical music is used, it perfectly suits the mood of the particular scene or scenes and does much to intensify dramatic effect.

Mr Larrain is a very serious director with a quite conscious "artistic" purpose. Consequently he has produced a serious and relatively lively and intellectual production but there is very little in the way of emotional connection.

Peter Hourigan adds a further, very positive, note after seeing Neruda  at MIFF 2016: Seems like we had a different film in Melbourne. One that played with lots of narrative elements, subverting the standard bio-pic approach by NEVER claiming to be the "truth" but finding greater truths in its narrative. Why, even the character of the detective is clearly shown to be a fiction, a creation by Neruda himself, playfully toying with the detective by leaving detective novels for him to read. And the frustrations of the detective trying to escape the understanding that he is a fiction, but somehow acknowledgement by Neruda will make him "live" - even as he's dying. One viewing, and i haven't got to the root of this,. Its structure is so inventive and playful, but its politics is still potent, as you'd expect with Larrain. This is not only exploring a famous historical character, or looking at Chile in the late 1940s, it's also exploring new ways of constructing a film narrative.

Barrie Pattison's first post on Neruda can be found here.


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