Saturday 13 August 2016

Cine Latino Film Festival (2) - Barrie Pattison reviews Pablo Larrain's NERUDA

Star turn at the Cine Latino Film Festival is Pablo Larrain’s Neruda. 

This one is a prestige offering of the Chilean film industry, from the star and director of No. It has walk-ons by Augusto Pinochet and Pablo Picasso, contains narration with poetic citations (“a river of buried tigers”) and runs to Edvard Grieg grinding away on the track. Significance is writ large upon it.

Rather than a conventional biography of the revered poet-politician it turns out to be an imagined account of the his period as a Communist Senator in 1948 Chile at the time his party was banned, his life in hiding and his escape on horseback to Argentina. The central drive of the piece is not history but an invented pursuit by philosophising, base born police inspector, a barely recognisable Gael García Bernal, after Luis Gnecco’s arrogant Neruda.

Oh no - not Javet and Valjean again! In fact they prove to be on another tack and the film becomes Bernal’s quest for justification though he’s told he’s only a bit player in his own life the way Kirk Douglas puts down Denis Byrd in Brian de Palma’s Home Movies. Now if that sounds like a lowering of the tone, you’d be right.

There are many imposing elements to the film - the excellent performances, the striking wide angle anamorphic photography that doesn’t gel the windows to stop light swamping dim interiors, the commentary on the tensions in the Latin American scene where government authority dwindles as the pursuit moves further from the centre, the examination of Party Discipline and it’s defiance. These contribute a number of attention getting scenes as with the montage of readings of the furtively mailed poems to cheering groups of workers and admirers, the waitress since she was eleven who demands of boozing Neruda whether socialist equality will mean they all become like her or like him, to have Gnecco assure her that it means everybody gets to eat in bed, his first antagonistic wife whose broadcast turns into a disaster for the state when she praises him despite having a writ out for thousands of dollars against him or Bernal’s scene with the transvestite entertainer. The ambivalence of  Gnecco’s relationships with the people sheltering him in his concealment dominates.

Despite the film’s many excellences, Neruda drags at a hundred plus minutes and the compared fates of the two leads, pointed by Bernal’s narration from the grave, doesn’t carry the revelation that the makers want it to.

While it’s by no means a write off, this one sinks under the weight of it’s pretensions. Also I've got to wonder about those Chilean orgies with Conga lines of naked women. That was the era when the best I ever got at left wing functions was room temperature Australian wine to toast the success of the Sputnik.

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