There are several pivotal moments in Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie,” but one truly epitomizes the director’s primary obsession. Days after she sat next to her husband as a bullet struck his brain, the bereaved Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) peers out a tinted window. Even in the midst of tumultuous grief, she recognizes the need to solidify his legacy with an elaborate funeral march. She’s completing his story while keeping her own in the shadows, but in a single powerful moment, the two collide.
With the former First Lady’s reflection on the window, Larraín superimposes archival images of the crowds that showed up to salute their dead president. The intimate experiences of a traumatized character collide with the public’s absorption of the mythology surrounding her. As viewers, we’re left to sort out the truth.
From the melding of anti-Pinochet campaign propaganda and a scripted narrative in “No,” to the relationship between a renowned poet’s words and the world that inspired him in “Neruda,” Larraín loves to create contrasts that force audiences to sift truth from myth. “Neruda,” like “Jackie,” tackles a public figure who’s known mainly through official records, and reveals layers of identity that were obscured by time. With both “Neruda” and “Jackie” on the fall festival circuit and headed toward releases this year, the time is ripe for more audiences to immerse themselves in his singular filmography. And if Larraín’s films haven’t yet grabbed your attention, now’s the perfect time to start.
Filmmakers are often identified by stylistic flourishes that carry over from one film to the next, and in their absence, it becomes difficult to ascertain an authorial voice. Larraín’s oeuvre is the rare exception. With a firm grasp on the language of the medium, one of Latin America’s greatest working directors continues to innovate and surprise audiences with sophisticated meditations on the past, while continuing to wrestle with a complex set of interlocking issues of personal, social, and cultural identity.
After launching his career with the 2006 thriller “Fuga,” Larraín spent the next decade unleashing a trilogy of masterful works confronting the country’s dark years under the grip of the Pinochet dictatorship. In the process, he became Chile’s preeminent artistic voice by finding diverse ways to represent a complex national identity.
Released in 2007, Larraín’s devious satire “Tony Manero” followed a “Saturday Night Fever”-obsessed psychopath (hauntingly portrayed by Larraín regular Alfredo Castro) willing to kill as a means of advancing his slot in an outrageous dance competition. Set in the late ’70s, as John Travolta shimmied across multiplex screens, “Tony Manero” provided a keen allegory for the unseemly contrast between America’s bright popular culture and sense of grim entrapment that percolated through Chilean society. Castro’s sullen demeanor, even as he takes wildly flamboyant stabs at dominating the dance floor, gives us one of the great modern movie monsters — an embodiment of desperation and the psychological duress that results from it.
Castro again starred in 2010’s “Post Mortem,” an unnerving tale in which a somber morgue worker loses his mind in the aftermath of the military coup that unseated Salvador Allende. Assailed by visions of dead bodies piled up by the dozens, he finds some escape by romancing a local dancer (Antonia Zegers), but their idyllic relationship can only last so long. A slow-burn character study that lingers in sorrow — its biggest scene involves a pair of characters crying for minutes on end — “Post Mortem” is Larraín’s most experimental work, right down to a macabre finale based around the overwhelming desire to bury the past rather than confronting it.
Then, at long last, a triumphant statement. Larraín concluded his trilogy with a semblance of hope: 2012’s Oscar-nominated “No” tracks the efforts of the activist group (headed by Gael Garcia Bernal in a career-best performance) responsible for the propaganda campaign that successfully unseated Pinochet in 1989. Shot in the grimy video of the period, the movie is a clever anti-thriller that encapsulates both the era’s paranoia and one group’s ability to push beyond it. By threading scripted scenes alongside genuine political campaigns, Larraín merges past and present to arresting effect, showing the extent to which the campaign reverberated for the country as a whole.
Having exorcised the demons of the Pinochet era, Larraín flashed forward to the present for “El Club,” a haunting minimalist portrait of disgraced priests forced to live together in exile on the Chilean coast. Larraín combined his pitch-black comedic sensibility with astute social observations, alongside his radical ability to sympathize with deeply flawed people.
Like the poet Pablo Neruda, whose legacy inspired the director’s next film, Larraín magnifies the emotions lurking the beneath the veneer of Chile’s fragmented milieu. “Tonight, I can write the saddest of lines,” Neruda famously wrote, and Larraín’s layered, melancholic approach to his characters takes cues from that statement. The outlook extends to the films he produces through Fabula, the company he co-founded with brother Juan de Dios, which has shepherded seminal glimpses of contemporary Chilé such as Sebastian Lelio’s “Gloria,” and extended beyond its borders with projects such as Sebastian Silva’s “Nasty Baby.” These movies are similarly defined by passionate characters alienated by the world around them but somehow driven to find a way forward, and Fabula has many more in the pipeline.
Larraín’s humanitarian outlook made him a perfect fit for exploring the seminal poet, senator, and expert raconteur Neruda. Luis Gnecco delivers a vivid (and highly accurate) performance as the eponymous centerpiece of “Neruda,” which follows the legendary figure from his bohemian partying days through his escape from Chilean authorities angered by his Communist leanings. But real star of “Neruda” is a cunning police investigator Oscar Bustamante Peluchonneau (Bernal again, this time playing a comic foil) tasked with tailing the poet. As he continues to chase Neruda, Peluchonneau realizes he’s trapped in Neruda’s own mythmaking. “I’m not a supporting character,” he says, but ultimately his validation stems from Neruda recognizing that their story together matters.
Neruda’s ability to endow the Chilean masses with romantic entitlement creeps into the film’s narrative, and the story plays out less like a biopic than a Neruda poem itself. Already one of the most exciting and unpredictable filmmakers working today, Larraín salutes one of his country’s greatest storytellers by matching his talents.
But “Jackie” goes one step further, piercing the boundaries of celebrity and political maneuvering. Noah Oppenheim’s script frames the taut few days in which Jackie plans her husband’s burial and Larraín’s camera stays close to his subject, forcing viewers to hover in her complicated mindset. No matter how much she tries to protect her grief, the world swarms in. “It’s not history if it’s not written down,” she tells a reporter goading her at every turn. That assertion is the biggest target of Larraín’s cinema: What is our relationship to the past — and how do we change it to meet our expectations today? As fact and fiction intermingle with the message-board conspiracy theories and the reductive social media that defines our information age, Larraín’s films couldn’t arrive at a better moment.
A version of this essay was published at the Telluride Film Festival, which hosted a tribute to Pablo Larraín during its 2016 edition.