Pablo Larrain is on fire. The man responsible for wonderful “No” and low-key, but equally mesmerising “The Club” is back to the big screen with not one but two films in 2016. Neruda is Chile’s bet for Best Foreign Language Feature at the Oscars, and rightly so. Don’t be confused by the simplistic, biopic-evoking title: this is nothing but lyrical, a filmic interpretation of the language the Chilean poet so artfully played with.
In 1948, the poet was a senator for the Communist Party of Chile, who was starting to be persecuted by the powers-that-be (read: Cold War upstairs neighbours, the Yankees). Eventually, he is forced into hiding to avoid incarceration. But Pablo was a creature at odds with himself, as any visit to his lavish homes will confirm: he was deeply concerned with the issues of the worker, but he was a champagne socialist who liked to travel extensively, who partied richly and who collected objects avidly. And he had an ego as large as Chile’s coastline, so that his hiding becomes a playful game of hide-and-seek between himself and sad, tragic inspector Peluchonneau, played so beautifully by Gael Garcia Bernal (hear my heart melt). Peluchonneau is the bastard child of a prostitute with, he’d like to believe, the man whose last name founded the police force in Chile. He is a true man of the people, looking to make a mark just like Pablo, but by following the currents of the elite that have always rejected the likes of him. They are mirror images, each thinking they’re the better man, without realising their thirst for grandiosity and glory makes them one and the same.
Larrain’s visual language is breathtakingly innovative. If for “No” he chose to emulate the visual vocabulary of Chilean television in the late 80s to great effect, for Neruda he applies a poetic voice that transcends the vocal. His camera movements are fluid and dance around the characters like words should if thrown together in the right way. The acting he commands of the actors is dotted with humour and lyricism. The dialogues carry the weight of a wordsmith. For such a sombre creature as Neruda, whose readings of his own poems I always thought as dreary at best, Larrain manages to find a lightness that is all too necessary so the film retains just the right balance. This is filmmaking at its best.
It remains to be seen if “Jackie”, Larrain’s film about la O’Nassis, will live up to the furore it caused in Venice only just recently. If this also happens to be the case, Larrain could end up having two films fighting for awards (an Oscars first?). It would also be one of the few times a Latin American filmmaker crosses over comfortably to the English language market (as Meirelles, Salles and Padilha, for example, struggled to do at large, but which Iñarritu excelled at). Chile, fronted by Larrain but also followed by the likes of Sebastian Leilo and Sebastian Silva, could mark a new frontier for Latin America cinema, picking up where Argentina and Brazil left off. Here’s for hoping.