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