Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín has long been considered one of the country’s leading figures in national cinema. Since the mid-2000s, he has ceaselessly reinvigorated Latin American cinema through his neoteric perspectives and rich cultural authenticity in examination of his country’s tumultuous political history, creating a damningly fresh and unyieldingly honest cinematic experience.
Larraín’s piercingly assertive, grimly violent and exquisitely poignant films paint an electrifying portrait of Chile’s turbulent political climate in the 20th century, most notably in his frequently dubbed ‘trilogy’ – Tony Manero (2008), Post Mortem (2010) and No (2012) – spanning from the final days of Salvador Allende’s presidency in the 1970s, to the apex of Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year long dictatorial reign and the cessation of his power in 1988.
After co-founding Fábula, a Chilean company in which Larraín develops his creative and advertising projects – including his 6 extant feature-length directorial productions and a string of commercially successful productions – Larraín released his inaugural directorial feature, Fuga (2006). An enigmatic drama centring on tortured Chilean musician Eliseo (Benjamin Vicuna), who becomes obsessed with a melody accidently produced on a piano after witnessing the brutal rape and murder of his sister, as well as ungifted Argentine music student Ricardo (Gaston Pauls), who rediscovers fragments of the enigmatic symphony and journeys to find the composition’s mysterious creator, Eliseo.
Despite Larraín’s family ties to the Chilean ring-wing government – he was born to senator Hernán Larraín, a member of Chile’s ring-wing, conservative Independent Democratic Union and Magdalena Matte, former minister of Housing and Urbanism to the country’s former president Sebastián Piñera – his work as a helmer veers distinctly to libertarian, left-wing sensibilities, as Larraín himself has publically voiced in his anti-Pinochet sentiments. In regards to the intensely impassioned and violent political climate of the period deftly observed in his films, Larraín declares, “In Chile, the right, as part of the Pinochet government, is directly responsible for what happened to culture during those years, not only by destroying it or restricting its spread, but also through its persecution of writers and artists.”
Larraín’s genre-bending sophomore film, Tony Manero, demonstrates that antipathy through the dark humour pervasive in the machinations of a sociopathic criminal zealously fixated with John Travolta’s “Saturday Night Fever” alter-ego, all against the allegorical backdrop of the feverish heights of Pinochet’s rule. Set in 1978 Santiago, the film illustrates how the country’s repressive political regime deleteriously impacted the lives of ordinary people through its ubiquitous dog-eat-dog mentality, epitomized by the low-life antagonist who – in a particularly vicious scene – brutally attacks and robs and an old woman to whom he had seconds earlier feigned friendliness by helping her get home.
Larraín’s third production, Post Mortem, is a deeply detached yet intensely moving portrayal of the degradation of a nation’s spirit through the love affair between an outwardly spiritless pathologist’s assistant, Mario Cornejo (Alfredo Castro), and weary show girl Nancy (Antonia Zegers). Set during the 1973 military coup that seized power from Allende and instated the dictatorship of Pinochet, the couple sees their relationship disintegrate when the latter’s family is torn-apart following a military raid at her home, resulting in the disappearance of her father and brother. The forlorn spirit of film is illustrated by Cornejo’s reflection on the disorder in which his city remains, with wrecked cars, deserted street and numberless bodies piling up at the morgue where he works.
In 2011, Larraín briefly departed from feature productions and began co-directing the HBO Latin America television series, Profugos, about a family who inaugurates the eldest son to be the head of cartel following the father’s death, swiftly followed by Larraín’s fourth feature film and the final of the Pinochet-era trilogy, No. A victory for democracy and the definitive rejection of Pinochet’s brutalising regime is presented in the film, adeptly depicting a triumph over hardships for advertising company executive René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal). Saavedra fronts a campaign in opposition to the 1988 Plebiscite devised in favour of maintaining Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorial power, with Larraín incorporating television footage from the 80s to recreate with striking realism the exhilarating political climate of the period.
Larraín deviates from the relatively light-hearted tone of No, by returning to the intensely sombre qualities of his earlier films in the sinister, psychologically-complex drama The Club (2015), presenting a completely new vantage point from which Larraín explores his welcomed themes of oppressed freedoms and the misuse of power, namely through the abuses of the Catholic Church. Larraín presents an alterative form of spiritual suffering through the experiences of a group of exiled Catholic priests who live hermetic lives in a secluded house, that is until the fragile stability of their situation is disturbed. The arrival of crisis counsellor, Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso), brings the horrors of the past to the present and reveals a narrative in which Larraín is relentless in the resoluteness of his political convictions.
Larraín together with Guillermo Calderón, his screenwriter from The Club, have crafted the helmer’s most recent production, Neruda (2016), a quasi-fictional account of celebrated Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s (Luis Gnecco) trying ordeals at the provenance of the Cold War’s spread in the country. The persecuted poet’s clashes with the Chilean government, his impeachment, his exile and continual hounding by the police authorities, are captivatingly portrayed alongside his ripe creative inspiration that resulted in the creation of his epic collection of poems, Canto General – Neruda proves that the raw volatility and fearless dynamism of Larraín’s filmmaking most definitely endures.
The distinctiveness of Larraín’s cinema lies in his dexterous ability to rigorously scrutinise political contrivances – not through glaringly direct critiques – but a sensitively nuanced subversion; through the abnormally distorted love story of Post-Mortem, the freakish sociopathic misdeeds of a fanatic in Tony Manero, or an executive’s endeavours to sway a majority vote against an oppressive regime – not through moral imperative – but by his shrewd advertising prowess in No. Larraín’s reported directorial involvement in a new film version of the 1983 classic Scarface is sure to possess the same fresh fearlessness as demonstrated in his impressive body of work.