Saturday, May 27, 2017

Review: NERUDA

1948 and the government of Chile is cracking down on a very active left. Prominent communist senator and renowned poet Pablo Neruda is targeted as a high profile threat. He flees the city with his wife, detective Oscar Peluchonneau in pursuit. This reads like a decent enough thriller with some added spice from the historical basis. But this is a film by Pablo Larrain and we've been here before.

His No, an account of the Chilean referendum that brought Pinochet's regime to an end was a fraught blend of menace and the day to day. The more recent Jackie used a familiar historical story to pose questions about the public face with a clever literalism. Neruda gives us a popular figure, showing both his heroic persona and private hedonism, a bourgeois communist who revels in his stardom while hoping that his vanity doesn't obscure his political commitment. This tension is admired by his pursuer (an intense Gael Garcia Bernal) who uses his fascination with Neruda as a spur in the chase.

I say chase but the action is very deliberately kept at a low priority. We are not following a hunt but examining both hunter and hunted as players. Oscar is self conscious. While we see much of Neruda in his various roles from public orator to private sensualist it is the policeman's voice that guides us. Oscar's narration is the first voice we hear in the film and his voiceover is the constant in a constantly shifting visual field. He describes his actions as a novelist might (a good detective does this or a clever detective thinks this) and we think of him as having the same vanity as his quarry until the possibility that he is only quoting the Neruda paperback that he carries constantly. The pursuit itself is a fiction no more intended to serve as biography than Jackie. We're here to watch the game and think about what it is to play a starring role in public life and if we as its pursuers might not aspire to something more impressive than a supporting character.

Larrain makes a lot of use of a strange technique whereby a single dialogue is given a number of settings uninterrupted. One moment Oscar is talking to Neruda's mistress on the terrace of her mountain villa but an answering line is delivered across a dining table. The next might be back on the terrace or in the street. While Larrain offers this blatantly he suggests little as to why. I had the feeling that it was akin to how individually art-directed our recollections of encounters and conversations can be, where we stand within them (momentously silhouetted by a window or warmly lit by oil lamps in an Andean tent) as leads, supports, or just extras. It is given gently and perhaps it or something like it is necessitated by the suppression of the chase narrative. If nothing else we are confronted with its reminder of the fiction of what we are seeing.

I watch Larrain's political biographies and I think of how much I prefer them to the Oliver Stone approach of locker-room home truths and pushed reconstructions. Stone slaps us with his verity, giving us no time to question it (well, we did ask him to do that when we bought the ticket). Larrain assumes we know something of the story he tells (or at least its nature as in the detective story in Neruda) and asks us in to chat about the things he has found while telling it. Watching this film I thought of The Conformist and from before it Alphaville and how much I have missed such a blend of art and politics. Don't be fooled by the trailer that wants you to think of it as a high cal thriller. It's much better than that.

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