A Fantastic Woman : A Film Review

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A Fantastic Woman

Directed by Sebastián Lelio and written by Lelio and Gonzalo Maza, Produced by Juan de Dios Larraín,

Pablo Larraín, Sebastián Lelio, Gonzalo Maza.

Cast: Daniela Vega as Marina Vidal, Francisco Reyes as Orlando, Luis Gnecco as Gabo, Aline Küppenheim as Sonia, Amparo Noguera as Antonia, Nicolás Saavedra as Bruno, Antonia Zegers as Alessandra, Trinidad González as Wanda, Néstor Cantillana as Gastón, Alejandro Goic as Doctor.

Music by Matthew Herbert. Cinematography Benjamín Echazarreta. Edited by Soledad Salfate. Production company Fabula, Komplizen. Film Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. Duration 1hr 44mins. Country Chile. Language Spanish.

It is the first Chilean foreign language entry Oscar since Pablo Larraín’s No, and the first ever Academy award for Lelio, in this follow-up to the highly rated Gloria.

Daniela Vega plays Marina Vidal, her lover is Orlando (Francisco Reyes).

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General synopsis

Marina and Orlando are in love and planning for the future. Marina is a young waitress and aspiring singer. Orlando is 30 years older than her, and owns a textile company. They celebrate Marina’s birthday one evening, Orlando falls seriously ill. Marina rushes him to the emergency room, but he passes away just after arriving at the hospital. Instead of being able to mourn her lover, suddenly Marina is treated with suspicion. The doctors and Orlando’s family don’t trust her. Marina is a trans woman and for most of Orlando’s family, her gender identity is an aberration, a perversion. So Marina struggles for the right to be herself. She battles the very same forces that she has spent a lifetime fighting just to become what she is now – a complex, strong, forthright and fantastic woman.

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Gender fluidity

Gender fluidity is a subject no longer hidden or made unreal. It is a feature of human beings often misunderstood or not seen clearly. There is no such ambiguity in the portrayal of Marina who is played by Daniela Vega as A Fantastic Woman. She has become transgender and is sharing a relationship with Orlando played by Francisco Reyes, a well off textile company owner whose love for Marina is unqualified. Orlando is a fifty seven year old and Marina an unspoken twenty eight year old or thereabouts. They share an apartment with a docile Alsatian dog called Diabla. It begins after a scene of fluidity in a wide opening shot of one of the wonders of the world Iguaçu Falls, formerly Victoria Falls on the Iguassú River, on the boundary between Brazil and Argentina. This film is set in Chile’s capital Santiago where the city life is international and commercial. Opening with Orlando in a male sauna with its steam and busy masseurs pummelling backs and muscles, his thoughts are on Marina and the gift he has prepared for her birthday.

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Simple choreography

Scenes are choreographed almost as rigid set pieces as the story is without any complexity other than the elements and range of emotional responses each conveys. First contact is through their eyes meeting in a club where Daniela Vega who plays Marina Vidal, is a singer and she sings “Your love is like yesterday’s newspaper” while fixing her gaze on her lover Orlando as the love story is revealed. From this introduction they enter a luxury restaurant to celebrate Marina’s birthday and the night continues with them dancing at another club and after to the apartment and a love scene.

What happens is a life changing moment. Orlando suffers a stroke which in a very short time kills him. It sets in train a whole accompaniment of conflicts and dramatic arrangements which involve the families with to a greater degree, Orlando’s family which includes a wife, child and several brothers and extended family. There is a funeral to be arranged and public persona to be kept in this still conservative society.

Marina is with Orlando throughout his last moments except when they are separated in the Hospital Emergency Rooms. The choreography is taken very thoroughly through roles and expectations with the arrival of an older brother, Gabo or Gabriel played by Luis Gnecco, who is aware of the relationship and knowingly accepting of Marina’s depth of love and loss. He asks the authorities to pull back on certain intrusive investigations but there are a sequence of very invasive examinations and a part in this is played by a Medical Officer specialising in gender relations and sexual crimes. The medical officer, Adrienne Cordez establishes quickly that no non consensual criminal acts took place and is does not suspect any abnormal events to have taken place. She is conscious through her own history and long experience of what is going through the mind of Marina when these assaults on grieving and adjusting are taking place. Memory is prominent in Marina’s mind.

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Barriers

The way Marina takes control of the situation is by keeping quiet and not reacting by showing her frustrations and she has to keep down a job as a waitress at the splendidly carnivalesque fun-fair themed restaurant she works at. Marina’s understanding boss is a savvy woman who does not interfere when she becomes aware something has happened as she witnesses a detachment and less ‘gay’ employee. The way the film builds is around these relationships and the comparisons of alternatives in acceptance of Marina for what she is. It is hard always for Marina to be stoic and strong in this grief and it is clear it brings in the prejudices and heightens them in this modern but conservative setting.

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There are a series of rebuttals and Marina is faced down by several entities. By showing outward calm this is a way of dealing with the loss of Orlando. His spikey son Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra),turns up at the flat unannounced and reads the riot act, insists in calling her by another name, and stakes a claim to being the bigot of the piece. Others line up throughout to wrest the claim of bigoted and homophobia embittered lives stalk the city. Dignity is a sword Marina draws on constantly as she weaves her way through the arrangements which are not as she was prepared for and which are detaching themselves from her despite her efforts.

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Appearances

Difficult as it may be to put oneself in her shoes. High heels are her mode of walking transport. The outward appearance is precious and a barrier to naysayers and bigots. Transgender life is seen to be a battleground in which the feminine genes are contested by male and female protagonists with crudeness and superficiality. The place of subtlety is oblique. Rendering first a barrier and a convention which for the most part is seldom questioned in everyday situations with Marina’s non-androgynous feminine movement and composure. They simply are to be navigated but always there is an anxiety present for the viewer, hoping it carries at every point and seeing negative aspects arise. The quest for normalcy is shared across the screen. No Culpa, negligence or guilt is worn by Marina.

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That Spanish word is latinesque in its casting back to ancient sexual diversity and ‘queer’ practice. An improperia of Catholic censure is evident in this Chilean society. Unbraided intemerate live’s are expected where in reality the worst of things exist and pervade and menace society entirely separated and detached from sexuality and it’s nature. The culpa is seen as self-reproach, avoided by Marina in the most part while in a relationship but now it begins to challenge. The challenge which may have existed earlier when the realisation occurred is revisited. Some of this self-reproachment is delivered in visual questioning, the persecution is real in an event which goes to the depths of hatred without going to extremis. Unatoned parallels are present in this revised world for Marina and happiness will it seems, once again be hard to achieve.

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Fortitude and strength

The strengths of the film are in its simplicity and its strong story of a struggle by Marina as a young transgender person in a highly conservative nation trying to achieve their right to happiness and be comfortable and making a life with purpose and meaning unfold as God intended. This is achieved by the continuity of the narrative unfolding. There is a beautiful choreographed set of relationships or scenes of encounter constructed through the film. A relationship which neither would have chosen to have is that between Orlando’s ex-wife, Sonia (Aline Küppenheim) and Marina. It features heavily in the centre of the story and it causes a bit of drag which is one of the films few drawbacks. The middle is slightly larger than is necessary and some tender moments would have had better preference in my viewing of it. The sideline characters are one dimensional although the sides of Sonia are sympathetic in deference to her own dilemma in part giving an alternative perspective. In some passages the hyper anxiety of Marina comes out in hallucinatory experiences. When she is trying to escape the present by going to seedier but safe clubs she is confronted by the overseeing memory. Late on a new dimension of Marina is shown in its full glory with her attending an elderly tutor whose own love for Marina is not hidden surfaces. This aspect of the film is glorious in its modest framing and brings in a major lift and ultimately cathartic moment which is brilliantly created in a requiem of repose for the soul and living beyond. Director has been saving up some very graceful and harmonic notes for us in releasing the grief in an expansive denouement and finale. The musical score by Matthew Herbert’s and the visually gripping cinematographer Benjamín Echazarreta‘s work which makes use fully of the electric gaze and demeanour of Marina. The sea is an undercurrent of the theme of turbulence as well as perpetual life outside human control as is manifest it seems in the events occurring and how they throw the weaker ones to the rocks.

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Directors note

I see A FANTASTIC WOMAN as a film of aesthetic splendor, narrative vigor, tension and emotion. Polytonal, multi-experiential, multi-emotional. It’s a film that is both a celebration and examination of its main character: Marina Vidal. What will the viewers see when they see Marina? A woman, a man, or the sum of both? They will see a human being who constantly changes before their eyes, who flows, vibrates, and modifies herself. But what they are seeing isn’t precisely what they are seeing, and this condition turns Marina into a vortex that attracts the viewer’s fantasy and desire, inviting them to explore the limits of their own empathy.

-Sebastián Lelio

Conclusion ####4

The sumptuous and well paced delivery of a story of grief and its aftermath is cleverly and sympathetically played out here and no part of the films object is ever seem to be implausible or overarching. It is a delicately handled story of tensions not least of transgender understanding by outsiders of a relationship which is loving and cherished. The imbalances of wealth, position, status, are seen as barriers which Marina and Orlando have made a pact with. Orlando’s private life and public life are kept separate except from trusted few and also through the break up of Orlando’s marriage. There is an immediate warmth to the film in its beginning and a few red herrings including almost key which turns up as a constant issue as well as a grim and unpleasant medical intrusion set a difficult set of circumstances alongside the rather straightforward and argumentative parts of conflicts around the actual funeral and the keeping up of appearances in a bourgeoisie upper class family. For all its predictablity in terms of – oh her comes a confrontation to type – a Doctor, Policeman, Son, Brother – only slight irritation is taken as the transactions are comfortingly disturbing for the expectancy is borne out of prejudice and bigotry which wrangles and causes the tension to build in the viewer against such unfeeling societal urges. The cast delivers an excellent thought filled movie and carry the dynamic and magnetic Daniela Vegas literally transformative part on to a very high level.

There have been other films of late, Loveless, Insyriated (others appear on the list) which count a great deal more in my mind of pioneering work and A Fantastic Woman is Fantastic as another piece of enlightenment and a very good cultural interpretation of a global issue and human gulf of understanding of non binary sexuality and how the manifestations of gender fluidity need better understanding and most of all acceptance and assistance. The achievement of an Academy Award is an immense lift to the profiling of the issues it raises and is well worth the added momentum. The more political films are obviously going to be less able to be lauded in such a commercial arena as Hollywood given its love of money and selling issues back to people via. stories of ‘atonement’ ‘endearment’ ‘unreality’ ‘creature-features’ and fables of many kinds.

John Graham

5 March 2018

Belfast

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Jackie : A Film Review


Directed by Pablo Larraín. Produced by Juan de Dios Larraín, Darren Aronofsky, Mickey Liddell, Scott Franklin, Ari Handel. Written by Noah Oppenheim. Cast. Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt. Music by Mica Levi, Cinematography Stéphane Fontaine, Edited by Sebastián Sepúlveda, Production companies, LD Entertainment, Wild Bunch, Fabula, Why Not Productions, Bliss Media, Endemol Shine Studios, Protozoa. Duration. 1hr 35mins. Cert. 15.


A moment changes the World

You are in for an engrossing watch through the dramatic performances and palpable tensions over an event which will last long in the memory of the Political and Social history of America. The 1963 assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  He was artly responsible for setting the foundation stones of modern America which were laid by a unity of purpose naively set up on the false hopes of the ‘All American dream‘ and even proposing – in a space race with the then USSR – landing a man on the moon. Most of America was fed through the very new media of TV and infinity of lifestyle magazines from Life to Playboy.  GQ would come later and in the Trump towers supermo’s office he has framed covers of Playboy and GQ featuring DT and with this film opening in the U.K. on Friday 20 January on the inauguration of the New President of the United States it is Donald Trumps turn to shape the USA dream or sign its death nail.

The blurb on the film is After her husband’s assassination, Jackie Kennedy’s (Natalie Portman) world is completely shattered. Traumatized and reeling with grief, over the course of the next week she must confront the unimaginable: consoling their two young children, vacating the home she painstakingly restored, and planning her husband’s funeral.  Jackie quickly realizes that the next seven days will determine how history will define her husband’s legacy – and how she herself will be remembered. Chilean director Pablo Larraín (Tony Manero, No) plunges us into the devastation using a series of finely crafted flashbacks that cover the fateful day in Dallas, Jackie’s return to the White House, arrangements for the President’s funeral, and her time spent accompanying her husband’s coffin to Arlington Cemetery.  

The role came to Portman through Darren Aronofsky, who directed her in Black Swan, for which she won an Oscar in 2011. He shepherded Noah Oppenheim’s script of Jackie for a number of years. Meanwhile, Larrain’s star was rising beyond Chile, in films largely about his home country’s history (No, The Club, Neruda). The Club won a prize at the Berlinale in 2015.  Sydney Morning Herald.


Performances to celebrate

It is a very tightly crafted film, very much keeping its focus on the psyche of Jackie Kennedy in a short period and time of immense change.  With all seeming to be heading sweetly for JFK heading into a second term, this was a joyous time and full of hope but is cruelly shattered in seconds.  The script is chillingly absent of sentiment, ideology, lecture or incidental fill.  It has a welcome electrifying directness giving insight to the persons at the heart of the event.  The conversations and efficiency of words infiltrate the mood swings and juxtapositions, allowing fractious clashes to ignite believably while personalities vie to capture their own space in the story.  The likes of the senior clerical Priest, Father Richard McSorley, played with assurity and gravitas by John Hurt, who is asked by Jackie to conduct the Funeral, is a fatherly figure with a breadth of intuative and needed kind wisdom, which he delivers in a long conversation with Jackie as they survey the landscape prior to the Funeral. The suggestion Jackie has a conversation with Father McSorley is not simply him seeking her approval of the arrangements but to have her unburden the thoughts he is aware she will not release. That in itself is a vivid illumination of the key central characters and the complexity of this world shattering event. Richard E.Grant is also wholly convincing as the ‘Master of Ceremonies’ in the White House, William Walton, anticipating and conflicted by the choices of Jackie in the now decorous White House she has recently restored and transformed into a ‘peoples’ house yet extravagance is not exiled.  The chairs once used by the Lincolns are retrieved from the English aristocrat family who obtained them. Peter Sarsgaard is tremendous as Bobby Kennedy.  He has the unfortunate job of burying a brother and looking after a widow both in grief. He is fragile and has black secrets. Bobby acted a lot of the time to keep the private side of his brother hidden while he also plays someone who deals with a wife who was aware of her husbands infidelity and mixing with the wrong folk.

Jackie asks

Jacqueline (Lee Bouvier Kennedy), (“Jackie”) 1929–94, wife of John F. Kennedy (1953–63) and Aristotle Onassis (1968–75).

What happened? Who done it? the questions on the free worlds mind in 1963 when JFK, Jack Kennedy is assassinated.  It is not often mentioned but the Cold War was in people’s minds so the USSR would not only have eyes on it, they could – though we’re never cited – as possible assassins.  The immediate aftermath is the focus of this story as seen through the eyes of the highly traumatised and troubled Jackie Lee Bouvier, the widow with two small children, Caroline and John.  The world is watching and she is in a state of Post traumatic shock with few medics to help and just the White House entourage to relate to.  No one is close to her except Bobby Kennedy and her aide de camp, the lady in waiting type, Greta Gerwig whose guidance is both practical and humane.  She for instance tells Jackie how to tell the children, in the whirlwind of thought she offers clarity. It is a stellar performance on  Greta Gerwig’s part too.  Towering as she does, over the small grieving woman Jackie/Natalie whose only friend is her. Others to note if only for their presence excepting JFK are  Caspar Phillipson as John F. Kennedy himself, John Carroll Lynch as President Lyndon B. Johnson, Julie Judd as Ethel Kennedy, Brody and Aiden Weinberg as John F. Kennedy Jr., Mathilde Ripley as Jean Kennedy Smith all lurking in the wallpaper of the White House.  When HBO first conceived of the idea along with Darren Aronofsky, around 2010, it was envisaged it would be a four part mini-series, then word got about and grander plans were put together.  While it ‘rested’ at times it eventually gathered the full engagement of LD Entertainment and Wild Bunch with Darren Aronofsky at the helm if not the Directors chair.


The White House

The CBS TV black and White tour fixes us back in the day through contemporary and modern interplay of the actual footage and inserts for the actors which is in grainy b/w and the sound is raw.  Even watching black and white TVs dotted around and particularly one in a g-plan cabinet contrasting with the French decorous style of Jackie contrast and realise the era.  In the Presidens office there are many old maritime portraits of ships with masts contrasting with the decorated heros marine past. Alongside these the massive portrait of Bison and Bison (so singular an animal it retains the name unaltered on plural!) on stampede.  The Oval Office is late in receiving its bold red circular carpet.  The whole replication of the White House interiors was carroed out on the Paris studios. The sound is delicately adjusted from the b/w footage back to a smooth dialogue, say of Billy Crudup and the footage is also integrated extremely well with it having apparently been shot on 35mm film.  I had an issue with the choice of music and while it was not maudlin it was at times irritatingly harsh and unnecessarily present.

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The American Route map to success.

The opening of the film begins on the Presidential plane with the entourage, the full works, preparing to land in Texas to go on that fateful journey into Dallas.  It is visceral expectation of her home state reunion and celebration of JFK having gotten to the White House and this stellar couple being examples of the American dream realised in a form of success matched by smartness and anticipation of a better future.  TV is the elephant in the room.  The intervention and prime inventor of those dreams.  The elephant in the room being the thought – you think you had and you sitting on the back as it’s pilot as it takes you where you think you intended to go – except the elephant is doing all the driving.  As with La La Land all is colour and CinemaScope.  The TV though is still black and white.  The arc of the film is the Life series of interviews and in this immediate period, with use of flashback and CBS footage of a White House tour – a key widening view of the hidden inner workings of the White House – the Life Magazine interview which is carried out by in Massachusetts after the event; only a week actually, with – ‘The journalist’ Billy Crudup  – as end credits have it.  It is of course the Theodore White interview which Jackie Kennedy sought and demanded total control over as she did with the State Funeral which went global in its TV and cinema showing of its extraordinary homage to a leader.


Life (other magazines Time, GQ are available)

Theodore White turns up at her remote lakeside home in Massachusetts at Hygennis Port in a timber colonial style high ceilinged mansion.  The brusque cautious greeting of Jackie is a trigger of thought and disclosure setting the tone and delivering a new way of journalistic intrusion.  Albeit a forthright discussion and serious interview, it is through the personality of Theodore White – whose loose collar and tie belie his penetrative technique – which loosens Jackie tongue and the core innermost telling emotions inside Jackies mind pour out easily.  His technique is simply using a notepad and pen, and his manner is stoic, serious and non judgemental, being notionally slightly deferential although he does not allow Jackie to get away from his inquisitive delving by upsetting her.  He is instead the astute and independent author of her words. Being agreeable is a ploy he will have used many times as a seasoned journalist knowing the thirst for this story and it’s massive trajectory in print. It will be her story, he tells her, as she ruminates over this slackening of the pressures post funeral  and of the historical marker she laid down.  “What I think of history?  Does that make it true?”  Her own struggling with the facts and perceptions. The truth of the assassination is always under the surface. For Natalie Portman  she had the stories to go to as the part was researched by reading the interviews, Her primary source was the seven-part eight-and-a-half-hour Life magazine interview conducted in the early part of 1964 by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. with Kennedy. One of three interviews she gave following her husband’s assassination, it was kept private throughout her life – so wiki tells me!

More insights to the way it evolved as a film are interestingly revealed on wiki and this is in a four year period which began with Racheal Weisz in the ‘titular’ part it goes on to – May 2015, Portman was confirmed to star in the film.  That same month, Chilean Director Pablo Larraín was hired having been approached by Darren Aronofsky to direct the film with Aronofsky subsequently working as a piloting producer.

    

Conspiracies aside.

The fact is this film does not dwell on the conspiracy theories or the killer(s) Ruby killing, the alleged assassin Oswald and it is intensely about the choices made in the immediate aftermath.  Natalie Portman is extraordinarily convincing in portraying a vulnerable fragile diminutive wife whose world is shattered and all known compasses are lost.  Portman was working on another film – Planetarium, with Lily-Rose Depp – during pre-production of Jackie in Paris. She prepares in depth for any role, but this one did not allow much time. She read everything she could find and studied footage of Jackie, especially her distinctive voice: silky, patrician and breathy, with touches of Long Island, where Portman spent part of her own childhood. That voice is a huge part of the performance.  Sydney Morning Herald. The strength Natalie Portman portrays, definitely Oscar worthy, is as if she is pulling her up, Jackie up and out of this extraordinary maelstrom event and is breathtaking through its simplicity and nuanced magnificently with subtlety and vocally with gesture, inflection and cadence.  From her adjusting her attire, make up, hair, and walking routine, for the outside world to her rehearsal and rehearsal of the tasks ahead with her lady in waiting, it becomes a legendary performance in itself.

 

Legacy for who?

The Life magazine and TV background of the aftermath is the question Jackie places centrally, concerning the public spectacle and projection of the legacy of her husband. The legacy is prime. She does all she can to make the cavalcade match the Lincoln funereal despite their legacies being poles apart.  With the help of Bobby Kennedy and Nancy Tuckerman, the lady in waiting, in a whirl wind she commands strength and the understandable flaky persona we have insight to, mainly due to the PTSD (as is our probable likely post-overview) which conceals an inner trauma with a sense of self she is continually framing the world view of both herself and Jack John Kennedy.  She and the Life magazine interviews which she retrieves partially – it is the widows prerogative exercised – as she is prepared to deny the journalists writing of it if need be.  This is clear to Theodore White in the journalists role and one he is prepared for.  It is too revealing so soon after the assassination she takes steps to reframe things.  In any event or so it is believed the truth may be revealed in time, however it never has been.


Conclusion ####4

In terms of reality, Jackie herself proclaims it very well, as she knows having been a Presidents wife, Public perception is often far from the truth, the managed truth.  She is at ease declaring the story is servant to the legacy.  The truth is another matter entirely.  The interview which works extremely well as the central plank of the film, is as though the legacy is assured as the fulfilment of what she wished for in terms of the funeral statelike removal of JFK was in itself testimony to the woman’s will and strength. This interview is a tail piece of extraordinary insight and it’s legacy is also hers.  Nancy Tuckerman, the splendidly relaxed and grounded Greta Gerwig is seen remaining and apart, left alone at the White House when Jackie leaves.  Don’t let it be forgot.  The words of Camelot. The invincibibility of the Camelot musical beloved of JFK who played the song, Victrola, as a refreshment after a hard day’s grind, is recalled by Jackie but she’s conscious there will be new presidents but there will never be another Camelot. On the page and of it darkness has its many shades.  The day today is just the first. A remarkable and very touching biographical memoir in a historically vexing film. While many will not be interested in the historical perspective it is a very touching story of how grief of any kind sends new priorities and shapes things so differently going forward.  It as a film asks more questions and is very contrasting for the current inauguration of a world leader going ahead right now.

       
John Graham

19 January 2017

Belfast
On at Queens Film Theatre Belfast from 20 January through to 2 February 2017.  And on wide General release.

What’s not on General release is the ‘road movie’ a political thriller of 104mins. 2016. by Pablo Larrain

Neruda


It’s 1948 and the Cold War has reached Chile. In congress, Senator Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) accuses the government of betraying the Communist Party and is swiftly impeached by President Gonzalez Videla (Alfredo Castro). Police Prefect Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal) is assigned to arrest the poet. Neruda tries to flee the country with his wife, the painter Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), but they are forced into hiding. Inspired by the dramatic events of his new life as a fugitive, Neruda writes his epic collection of poems, Canto General. Meanwhile, in Europe, the legend of the poet hounded by the policeman grows, and artists led by Pablo Picasso clamor for Neruda’s freedom. Neruda, however, sees this struggle with his nemesis Peluchonneau as an opportunity to reinvent himself. In this story of a persecuted poet and his implacable adversary, Neruda recognizes his own heroic possibilities: a chance to become both a symbol for liberty and a literary legend.

From the fibula.cl website where you can also see trailers of other films by Pablo Larrain like Fugue.
La Casa Films logo is so good I have to show it! 

The range of Cinema in Chile is astoundingly captivating.