REVIEW: Neruda

13 12 2016

nerudaHouston Cinematic Arts Festival

2016 has been a great year for films that toy with the notion of genre; “Neruda” is the second from Pablo Larraín in this calendar year alone. Like “Jackie,” this is a work at war with the preconceived notion of the biopic. Although in this film, Larraín and screenwriter Guillermo Calderón seek less to redefine the genre so much as they desire to smash it.

This portrait of Chilean poet and political activist Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) casts scant attention on his artistic achievements or his radicalization. If you wish to come away from “Neruda” knowing these things, you’ll have to head to Wikipedia while the credits roll. Instead, the film more closely resembles a police mystery with Gael García Bernal’s inspector Óscar Peluchonneau hunting down the fugitive Neruda. It’s a cat and mouse thriller, and the mouse is particularly elusive because he can shape-shift.

Neruda, ever the writer, confounds the search by essentially turning his life into a novel before our own eyes. Separating the truth from his narrative spin becomes trickier with each passing scene, especially because Neruda is quite a playful author. From the film itself, Peluchonneau comes across like a long-lost brother of Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc Sportello from “Inherent Vice.” Is that his actual persona? We’re not meant to know – or care.

I always understood the intended effect of “Neruda,” but Larraín’s insistence on keeping us at arm’s length proved frustrating. With such distance, the film feels like a cold intellectual exercise – something to understand but not involve yourself in. In the absence of any kind of connection or investment, the labyrinthine plot comes to tire by the end of the film. B-2stars

REVIEW: The Club

1 02 2016

The Club

This review originally appeared on Movie Mezzanine, for whom I covered Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX.

When great filmmakers tackle religion, they do not just talk about God – they show God in their visual schema. Witness Scorsese’s tortured characters warping their bodies into the shape of a crucifix, or the camera-eye of Malick constantly looking up in awe at the heavens. But God may not always be the warm, lens flare-inducing sun like it is for the latter director. In Pablo Larraín’s “The Club,” the ominous deity constantly announces his presence as a pervasive cool light that washes out the frame.

This harsh, judgmental presence lends an appropriate griminess to the story, about four exiled Catholic priests in their twilight years. The group lives in relative comfort together in a house on the shore of a small Chilean town, even making some money on the side by gambling with a greyhound they train. But when a newcomer joins their ranks, the transgressions that landed them all there threaten to spill over into the public eye, forcing the church’s hierarchy to institute some more punitive measures.

Anyone who has followed the scandals plaguing Catholicism over the past few decades in any capacity can probably guess immediately what landed at least one of these priests on the outskirts of their religious community. Still, Larraín’s take on the sensitive topic of sexual abuse in the church presents the issue in a different light worth our consideration. To be clear, he never abandons the perspective that taking advantage of young children is indefensible. Yet “The Club” dares to delve into the headspace of these priests, attempting to understand how they see shades of grey on a moral question that appears so black and white to everyone else.

The film proves most compelling when it gets down in the mud with the priests and their flimsy justifications. Each one of them warps stories and scriptures in order to square their deeds with their religious calling and rationalize the behavior that earned rebuke. Yet even in focusing the majority of his attention on the perpetrators, Larraín never loses sight of the survivors. One in particular, Sandokan (Roberto Farías), shows just how easily the priests can victimize and subsequently ostracize the children on which they prey.

“The Club” examines impunity in shocking, enlightening ways that effectively challenge the privileged position held by the Catholic Church in Chilean society. The narrative focus may provide a tricky wire to walk, but Larraín glides along it with the grace his characters so desperately lack. And while the eyes of God may not glare down on the proceedings, his stark light still casts disapproval as it seeps through every window. B+3stars


22 08 2013

No PosterNo” has the look of the VHS tapes that I watched in high school Spanish, a campy educational telenovela called “Destinos.”  Pablo Larrain’s film is definitely informative and enlightening, but it’s meant to be taken far more seriously than any corny classroom staple.  His gripping political procedural finds beauty in its unseemly U-matic aesthetic, giving “No” a documentary-style feel of veracity and allowing us to get all the more invested in the outcome.

And I was already on board with the film’s subject, a display of how the language of public relations and advertising (a potential career path for me) can be used to save the world for democracy.  In the 1988 Chilean plebiscite, voters were offered a simple referendum as to whether they wanted to keep dictator Augusto Pinochet in power.  Each side received 15 minutes to promote their cause.

At a disadvantage since they had to change the established order, the “no” campaign brought on a creative mind from outside the political sphere, René Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal).  A successful advertiser that’s every bit as eccentric as the Mark Zuckerberg of “The Social Network,” Saavedra brings the language of his industry to the table and changes the game.  They are no longer selling a vote against the atrocities and crimes of Pinochet; they are selling a vote for happiness and a better life under a new regime.

While it’s now commonplace to see PR trump the issues in American politics (usually not for the better), Larrain takes a rather non-judgmental stance on Saavedra’s revolutionary “no” campaign.  It’s fascinating to watch the events unfold from a distance, although there were times I wished “No” delved more into the psyche of Bernal’s Saavedra.  As a result, it’s not exactly the most rousing political drama – but it’s definitely one to make you think about the way in which modern elections are conducted.  B+3stars