Every week, the folks at iTunes find a movie they like and make it available to rent for the low, low price of $0.99. I’m here to tell you whether that film is worth your hard-earned dollar.
The featured $0.99 move this week is a little documentary called I Am Not Your Negro. Directed by Raoul Peck and narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the film examines civil rights struggles past and present through the prism of an unfinished manuscript from James Baldwin. I Am Not Your Negro challenges the very notion of the American ideal. It’s one of the most important documentaries made in the last decade. You owe it to yourself to see it. At $0.99, there’s no legit reason you shouldn’t. See that you do. As it happens, the other $0.99 movie this week was one of my few ‘must see of films 2016’ that I didn’t actually get to see. So …
This week, Pablo Larraín examines the life poetic/political with his anti-biopic Neruda.
I Was Made of Paper
When the Chilean government outlawed Communism in the late 1940s, Nobel Prize winning poet (and staunch Communist) Pablo Neruda became a fugitive in his own country. Pursued relentlessly by Chilean police forces, Neruda went underground. He stayed on the move. He kept writing. And he became the voice of Chile’s exploited working class. Neruda is his story.
Now I’m Made of Blood
Well, sort of. That synopsis might leave you thinking that Neruda is another one of those stuffy biopics out to glorify its subject with an absurdly idealized version of their life and work. It isn’t. Directed with esoteric flair by Pablo Larraín (Jackie) Neruda plays fast and loose with the facts and fictions of Neruda’s life and feels less like a biopic than a fanciful fiction derived from biographical information. One that pays more heed to what the poet meant to Chile than who he was as a man.
Set in 1948 – over the final months before his exile from Chile – Neruda is a film almost consumed by its sense of time and place. A time when ideals could still be dangerous. A time when poetry still had the power to inspire everyday people. And a world where political upheaval was commonplace. Larraín recreates that world with a staggering eye for detail. His film is so thick with period accuracy you can virtually smell the streets of Santiago, the brothels of Valparaiso and the snowy ridges of the Andes.
Larraín and Screenwriter Guillermo Calderón play straight with the general facts surrounding Neruda’s political exile as well, laying out the actions and political maneuvering that led to the poet’s exile with the precision of documentarians. The combination of period accuracy and factual detail cast a sense of hyper-reality over much of the action. That Larraín & Co. undermine that sense of reality at every turn is what makes Neruda such a captivating film.
Though I’m not certain captivating is exactly the right word. Neruda is an absorbing film to be certain. At times it’s utterly confounding. Other times it’s quite funny. It’s heartfelt and insightful. From start to finish, it’s just a thrilling film to experience. And it is an experience. One that sees Larraín & Co use every trick in their cinematic arsenal to fuse the poetics and politics of a supremely complex human being with the pulpy flare of a dime store detective novel. What they find in the mix is a giddily offbeat tale of head vs. heart and fact vs. fiction that might’ve sprung from the mind of the poet himself.
And as a whole, Neruda often plays like poetry. Images shift in scene giving the appearance of a character traveling time and space in the course of a single sentence. Voice-over washes in and out of the action bridging poetic ramblings with the hard-boiled narration of detective fiction. Lens flares cast an otherworldly calm over certain scenes and a nightmarish glare over others. Through every moody moment, Larraín never loses focus of his story. Neruda shifts and turns and rambles with an almost stream-of-conscious disjointedness. But it always makes sense. It rambles, but it’s also compact … even exacting in its execution. And it never feels quite as odd as it should as a result.
Of course, the performances of Luis Gnecco and Gael Garciá Bernal are largely responsible for anchoring the film to any sense of reality. Gnecco in particular shines as Neruda, portraying the poet as part charlatan, part savior. He imbues the character with a cerebral, bourgeois sort of arrogance that’s often off-putting, but he eases that arrogance into an endearing empathy when the poet is surrounded by the common people he fights for. It’s a complex and commanding performance that should’ve gotten a lot more attention during awards season.
The same can be said for Bernal who approaches his role with a dedication rarely seen on-screen these days. His Peluchonneau seems to be an amalgamation of every fictional detective from Sam Spade to Jacques Clouseau. He’s tragic and naive, self-effacing and self-aware, eternally straight-faced but witty. But Bernal plays every emotion and every scene with such sincerity that you often find yourself rooting for him to catch his man … even if you know he never will.
In the end, it’s sincerity that ties every glorious frame of Neruda together. It bleeds through the film with the rhythm and beauty of verse. It grounds its subjects in reality even as it pushes them towards farce. And it makes Neruda the rarest of biopics that understands an artist’s influence in the world is often more important than their place in it.
You bet. With exquisite music, writing, cinematography, editing, acting, et. al. Neruda is as inventive and as soul-stirring as anything the master poet himself could have conjured. It’s one of the most complete films you’ll ever see. And I can guarantee you’ve never seen anything quite like it. So yes, Neruda is an absolute steal at $0.99. Don’t you dare miss it.