By David Elliott
APPETIZER: Review of NerudaQuite recently (see Nosh 49 below) Chile’s brilliant director Pablo Larraín made Jackie. He didn’t remove Jacqueline Kennedy from her fabled and tragic pedestal as a presidential widow. Instead, with Natalie Portman at her best, he put a living woman on the pedestal, full of personal fury and anguished perplexity.
With more playfulness, and with a Latin flair for magical myth, Larraín revamps our sense of a great poet in Neruda. Back in 1994 Il Postino: The Postman starred Philippe Noiret as a wry, sage Neruda and Massimo Troisi as the simple Italian postman who falls in love with Neruda’s work. The endearing film sparked a big revival for Neruda’s love poems which, along with his radiant odes to basic and simple things, are the foundation of his popularity. But he was also a great political poet. True, as a devout Marxist he wrote some rhetorical rubbish, Stalinist boilerplate. But Neruda’s best political works, including most of the Canto General, have kept his name and verse sacred to idealists of the Left.
Larraín’s Neruda, contrived with writer Guillermo Calderón, is a pudgy peacock, a romantic egotist. It’s 1948, and Neruda is a leading Communist senator in Chile, The regime is falling into line with the new CIA’s Cold War thinking (the President is played by Alfredo Castro, wonderful as the insane criminal hooked on Saturday Night Fever in Larraín’s Tony Manero). Neruda goes into rather flamboyant hiding, then escapes over the mountains to Argentina. That really happened, but in Larraín’s take Neruda has a pursuing nemesis: the government’s fierce young agent Oscar.
He is played by Gael García Bernal, superb in Larraín’s political docu-drama No. Oscar is (or claims to be) the bastard son of a prostitute and a famous police chief. García Bernal makes his proven, zestful charisma neurotically potent, and seems to merge Inspector Clouseau with Jean-Louis Trintignant’s robotic Italian fascist in The Conformist.
A movie that salutes Neruda by opening with him urinating while denouncing his nearby, fellow senators as Yanqui stooges, and which has him fleeing from his lover’s most tender offer, to get drunk in a bordello, is not polishing a statue. Larraín has trifurcated Neruda: a brilliant troubadour of the dispossessed, a narcissist constructing his legend, and a sly, conspiratorial jester whose “act” thrills even Oscar. We begin to see Oscar as a bravura facet of Neruda’s grand, Whitman-wide imagination, as the guilty noir shadow leaking from Chile’s darkness, chasing Neruda’s flight to solar fame and glory.
The ending, in the high Andean snow, is as poetically vivid as Warren Beatty’s snowy exit in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. With splendid help from García Bernal and, as Neruda, Luis Ghecco (best known for comedy), and Delia del Carril as Neruda’s proud, artistic lover, and also Grieg and other composers, Larraín has fashioned a terrific movie. His vision of postwar Latin America (using ace imagery, urban and rural, by Sergio Armstrong) is irresistible. If you pay attention to credits, you may notice that the film’s “prop master” is Salvador Allende – the name of Neruda’s Marxist friend and president, martyred in 1973 by a CIA coup.
SALAD (A List)A Dozen Dramatic Movies About Real Writers (star, subject, year): Oscar Wilde (Robert Morley as Wilde, 1960), The Belle of Amherst (Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson, 1976), Tales of Ordinary Madness (Ben Gazzara as Serking/Charles Bukowski, 1981), Dreamchild (Ian Holm as Lewis Carroll, 1985), My Left Foot (Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown, 1989), An Angel at My Table (Kerry Fox as Janet Frame, 1990), Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (Jennifer Jason-Leigh as Dorothy Parker, 1994), Before Night Falls (Javier Bardem as Reinaldo Arenas, 2000), Adaptation (Nicolas Cage as Charlie Kaufman, 2002), Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, 2005), Bright Star (Ben Whishaw as John Keats, 2008) and Trumbo (Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo, 2015).
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)Orson Welles is seldom thought of as an intimate entertainer, more like a master of the powerful effect. But his most popular success was in radio, where he “wanted to eliminate the ‘impersonal’ quality of most programs, which treated the listener like an eavesdropper. The radio, he recognized, was an intimate piece of living room furniture, and as a result the ‘invisible audience should never be considered collectively, but individually.’ This, incidentally, was an idea that FDR had understood better than any politician of his era.” (From James Naremore’s The Magic World of Orson Welles.)
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)In a little country restaurant, in Alice Adams, Katharine Hepburn’s performance as Alice “pressures Pauline Kael’s remark that Hepburn ‘has always been too individualistic, too singular for common emotions.’ Here she is giving fairly common emotions an uncommonly stylish clarity. Words arrive emotionally liquid, tempo ebbs and flows, candor teases out truth. It’s a lesson in ‘good breeding’ beyond the social game.” (From the Katharine Hepburn/Alice Adams chapter in my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, from Amazon, Nook or Kindle).
DESSERT (An Image)A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
Pernell Roberts (left) and Randolph Scott found a Western pinnacle in Ride Lonesome (Columbia/Ranown 1959; director Budd Boetticher, cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr.).
For previous Noshes, scroll below.