David Strat­ton

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

Neruda (MA15+) Lim­ited na­tional re­lease Nor­man: The Mod­er­ate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (M) Lim­ited na­tional re­lease Hand­some Devil (M) Lim­ited na­tional re­lease

Afew years ago, on hol­i­day in Chile, I vis­ited Val­paraiso and the clifftop house where the coun­try’s fa­mous and much-loved poet, diplo­mat and politi­cian Pablo Neruda had lived for many years. The visit led me to Neruda’s work, and so I was par­tic­u­larly keen to see the film that Chilean direc­tor Pablo Lar­rain has named af­ter him. Due to a quirk in in­ter­na­tional film distri­bu­tion, the film Lar­rain made af­ter Neruda, Jackie, opened in cin­e­mas here first, so with both films very fresh in my mind it was in­ter­est­ing to com­pare them.

De­spite their ti­tles, nei­ther film is a biog­ra­phy of a 20th-cen­tury celebrity. Both un­fold over a rel­a­tively short pe­riod, Jackie in the days im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing the as­sas­si­na­tion of pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy in 1963 and Neruda over a few months in 1948 when the Com­mu­nist Party se­na­tor was forced into ex­ile by pres­i­dent Gon­za­lez Videla, who sought to align him­self more closely to the US and the strong anti-com­mu­nist poli­cies of the McCarthy pe­riod. In other re­spects, though, the two films couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent; Jackie is in­ti­mate and re­al­is­tic, whereas Neruda is lav­ish and fan­ci­ful, in­cor­po­rat­ing as it does scenes that are patently ar­ti­fi­cial, such as the open­ing, which takes place in a crowded and lav­ishly ap­pointed male toi­let.

Forced to leave his home with his Ar­gen­tineborn wife Delia del Car­ril (Mercedes Moran), the grumpy Neruda (Luis Gnecco, giv­ing a be­guil­ing per­for­mance) is hid­den in var­i­ous safe houses while at­tempt­ing to cross the bor­der into Ar­gentina. Mean­while the gov­ern­ment un­earths his ex-wife Maria Ha­ge­naar (Hei­drun Breier), in an at­tempt to ex­pose him as a bigamist.

This is the ba­sic plot, and it’s straight­for­ward enough, but Lar­rain em­bel­lishes it with sev­eral quirky el­e­ments, chiefly the ma­jor char­ac­ter of a ded­i­cated po­lice­man named Os­car Pelu­chon­neau, a natty pres­ence in his fe­dora, trench coat and 1940s mous­tache. As charis­mat­i­cally por­trayed by Gael Gar­cia Ber­nal, Pelu­chon­neau — who nar­rates the film — al­most be­comes the cen­tral char­ac­ter, although it soon be­comes clear he doesn’t ac­tu­ally ex­ist but is a fig­ment of the fugi­tive’s imag­i­na­tion (“peluche” is Span­ish for a stuffed toy).

In scenes that are pre­sum­ably dreams, Neruda is de­picted as the epit­ome of a cham­pagne left­ist, tak­ing part in nude or­gies and slurp­ing down co­pi­ous amounts of wine. But these se­quences are con­trasted with telling mo­ments of re­al­ity, such as the one where Neruda en­coun­ters a drag queen in a bar. One riv­et­ing mo­ment briefly in­tro­duces a young army cap­tain, Au­gusto Pinochet, who is su­per­vis­ing one of the gov­ern­ment’s many pris­ons; the sig­nif­i­cance of this barely glimpsed char­ac­ter will not be lost on any­one with a knowl­edge of Chile’s trou­bled re­cent his­tory.

Dur­ing his pe­riod of ex­ile Neruda wrote Canto Gen­eral, the work that con­firmed him in the eyes of many Chileans as a poet of the peo­ple. This smart, whim­si­cal, ex­tremely quirky and devilishly en­ter­tain­ing por­trait of the poet is far from be­ing a tra­di­tional biog­ra­phy but it joy­fully cel­e­brates the spirit of the man and his mo­men­tous times. In the cum­ber­somely ti­tled Nor­man: The Mod­er­ate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, Richard Gere plays the ti­tle char­ac­ter in a bravura per­for­mance, one of his best. The film, a US-Is­raeli co-pro­duc­tion filmed mostly on lo­ca­tion in New York by a first-time wri­ter­di­rec­tor from Is­rael, Joseph Cedar, im­me­di­ately im­presses as be­ing an in­sider’s look at a spe­cific milieu — the in­ti­mate and in­tri­cate links be­tween Jewish Amer­i­cans and Is­raelis.

Nor­man Op­pen­heimer is one of those characters you’d avoid in real life. He won’t take no for an an­swer; he’s pushy, in­sis­tent, an­noy­ing and rather pa­thetic. Al­ways dressed in a camel­hair coat (it’s win­ter), wear­ing a Bri­tish peaked cap and car­ry­ing a bat­tered satchel, he seems to have no home but con­ducts his busi­ness by mo­bile phone in shops, cafes and while sit­ting on park benches. His busi­ness card, which he of­fers to ev­ery­one he meets, reads Op­pen­heimer Strate­gies, and he’s al­ways try­ing to make con­tacts, to fur­ther busi­ness or po­lit­i­cal re­la­tion­ships. Mostly he gets re­buffed.

A chance meet­ing with an Is­raeli politi­cian, Micha Eshel (Lior Ashke­nazi), proves a turn­ing point. A deputy trade min­is­ter, Eshel is vis­it­ing New York when Nor­man “be­friends” him and buys him a pair of $US1000 shoes. It proves to be a good in­vest­ment, be­cause three years later Eshel has be­come Is­rael’s prime min­is­ter.

Cedar makes it clear there’s no sub­stance to Nor­man, a point rammed home by the event- ual ap­pear­ance of an­other “Nor­man” (Hank Azaria), who is even shab­bier than Nor­man him­self. Yet some­how Nor­man is able to make things hap­pen, some­how his con­tacts pay off, some­how he’s able to help his nephew (Michael Sheen) and his rabbi (Steve Buscemi). Or is he? Is it, per­haps, all a fig­ment of Nor­man’s vivid imag­i­na­tion.

You cringe at Nor­man’s at­tempts to in­gra­ti­ate him­self with peo­ple of in­flu­ence but at the same time you pity a man with no ap­par­ent friends or fam­ily, with no life at all, re­ally. A scene in which he en­coun­ters an em­bassy of­fi­cial (Char­lotte Gains­bourg) on a night train trav­el­ling from Washington to New York pro­vides one of few mo­ments in which he lets his guard down.

It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight into a very spe­cific en­vi­ron­ment, and Cedar keeps the mo­men­tum go­ing quite stylishly, us­ing clever split-screen ef­fects to good ad­van­tage. But the film be­longs to Gere, with his ruddy cheeks and des­per­ate need to be wanted and ac­cepted. Even when the film founders, which it does at times, you can’t help but be fas­ci­nated by Nor­man. The woes of a gay school­boy forced by his ab­sent fa­ther to at­tend a board­ing school in Ire­land are sen­si­tively ex­plored in the Ir­ish film Hand­some Devil, writ­ten and di­rected by John But­ler.

Ned (Fionn O’Shea) hates rugby, but Wood Hill, the school his dad (who lives and works in Dubai) in­sists he at­tend, is rugby fix­ated. Ned shares a room with Conor (Ni­cholas Gal­itzine), a good-look­ing star of the school foot­ball team, and while he finds some sym­pa­thy from Mr Sherry (An­drew Scott), the English teacher, he is con­stantly hu­mil­i­ated by the su­per-ma­cho, ho­mo­pho­bic Mr O’Keefe (Moe Dun­ford), the foot­ball coach.

Though the film con­tains few sur­prises, it mostly avoids the cliches that con­stantly threaten to over­whelm it. But­ler sym­pa­thet­i­cally de­picts the dif­fi­cul­ties faced by a gay young­ster who is forced to live in close prox­im­ity to boys who de­spise and con­stantly threaten him. But­ler tells Ned’s story with a la­conic sense of hu­mour (O’Shea has a con­stantly be­mused ex­pres­sion) and the pos­i­tive mes­sag­ing comes across loud and clear.

Gael Gar­cia Ber­nal as po­lice­man Os­car Pelu­chon­neau in Neruda, top; Richard Gere in Nor­man: The Mod­er­ate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, above

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