Pablo Larraín, an eminent filmmaker in contemporary Chilean cinema, has an uncanny openness to formal experimentation, borrowing dramatic events from historical moments of his nation and moulding them into an uncompromised cinematic vocabulary. While these tendencies form alternate modalities, which we can explore in their own right, there is, nevertheless, an advantage to examine Larraín’s body of work in terms of distinct periods. It allows us to observe trends and chart trajectories in a career that has been deemed unpredictable, somewhat erratic and creatively challenging.
His films have established a vivid filmic presentation about Chile’s troubled history due to the impact of the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and its problematic aftermath. Larraín has leveraged the scars of such a dark bygone period of his country to tell his stories. Larraín, the realist, looks squarely at these situations and has focused on relevant issues such as abuse of power and the dangers of authoritarian regimes.
It is perhaps at this point that we should discuss the critical framework for the assessment of Larraín’s body of work. What is at stake here is not only the understanding we reach of a particular director’s work, but also the question of authorship more generally, and how it functions in a new and changing cinematic context.
Here is every Pablo Larraín film ranked.
9. Fuga (2006)
Misfortune can strike our lives unexpectedly and leave us in a state of pessimism and despair. But it is upon our strong will whether we are courageous enough to tide the situation in our favour and emerge victorious from the ocean of defeat. The thematic fabric of Pablo Larraín’s debut venture Fuga consists of something similar.
Eliseo Montalbán (Benjamín Vicuña) had a traumatized childhood even before he metamorphosed into an impassioned young composer. He witnessed the brutal rape and murder of his young sister that left him with an indelible scar right from his childhood. Years later, another tragedy strikes him with the death of his pianist. Completely shattered, Eliseo spends time in a mental institution. How he strikes back into the world of music forms the crux of the film.
Pablo Larraín creatively handles sensitive subjects, showcasing the complex nuances of human emotions from outside and within. Music is used as a panacea through which the protagonist overcomes the painful and tragic memories as well as the psychological blocks of his existence. The use of orchestras and pianos creates finely scored tunes that invoke the spirit of the period. The film won the Golden India Catalina at the Cartagena Film Festival 2007, and Larraín began his cinematic journey.
8. Tony Manero (2008)
Set in Santiago de Chile, 1978, in Tony Manero, we follow the life of an impersonator Raúl Peralta, a man in his 50s, obsessed with impersonating John Travolta’s character on Saturday Night Fever. He has a long-cherished dream of being recognized and earning nationwide fame. When the National television announces a dance competition, he lies, cheats and manipulates his way around town in an attempt to win the televised contest.
By aping a Hollywood superstar, Dance acts as a catalyst for Raúl to escape the hopelessness of his situation and evade the bleakly claustrophobic society at its lowest ebb due to General Pinochet’s dictatorship. In Tony Manero, Pablo Larraín exercises his artistic acumen in such a way that it has gone hand-in-hand with his need to understand his times, marking what is perhaps the most productive intersection between life and art, politics and culture. He powerfully engages the politics of class struggle by focusing on the struggle of the ordinary people. He brings his clinical precision in examining the overall dimensions of the era and particularly its impact on the psyche of Chili as a nation.
Tony Manero won the top prize at the 2008 Torino Film Festival, and it was Chile’s submission to the 81st Academy Awards for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
7. Neruda (2016)
The events in Neruda unfold during 1948-49 after President González Videla (Alfredo Castro) betrayed the communist sentiments of Chile post his election triumph. Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) publicly protested the government’s imprisonment of Communist mine workers. As a result, the government issued a warrant for his arrest. He goes into hiding. A young policeman Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) is given the duty to hunt for the fugitive.
The film depicts the titular character as a soul connected to ordinary Chileans besides being an individual concerned with the Communist Party’s struggles. Scenes such as Neruda showing hugging a street beggar or assuring a hotel maid that there will be a hike in her pay and fewer hours of work after the end of the revolution reveal Neruda’s humanistic appeal. The film is neither devastatingly bleak nor tooth-achingly saccharine. It presents a balanced and earnest portrayal of its subject matter. The film comes across as a deeply personal passion project, shedding a harsh and unforgiving light on an important political period of Chile.
While recognising the poetic liberty in cinematic and cultural production, directors do exercise to have control over their films and use them as vehicles for their attitudes and beliefs. To what extent Pablo Larraín’s work bears the mark of his personality is, of course, open to question. Neruda raises such discourse but could not match with the grit displayed in his other biopics.
6. Ema (2019)
The milieu of the Ema has an overall hypnotic vibe constructed with a daring formalistic approach that eventually comes off with a madcap conclusion. Larraín brings a poetic touch typically representing the eternal human longing for liberation. It is a chaotic and cruel character study of a couple dealing with the aftermath of an adoption gone wrong and their alienation from parental responsibilities.
Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) is a young dancer and teacher, who along with her now-divorced partner Gaston (Gael García Bernal ), had decided to adopt a child, years ago. They soon realize that the child has a troubled mind with a pyromaniac tendency. Soon a tragic situation befalls the couple. They decide to return the child to the adoption organization after persuasion and bribery. But the guilt of their act keeps plaguing them forever. The situation goes askew as their household falls apart.
With this film, Larraín closes into an artistic unity which is more like a single, undivided gesture that has swept from loneliness to hope to anguish than a succession of facts or occurrences held together by a plot. He makes use of both natural sounds and music with extraordinary skill and timing, to generate an atmosphere, imply additional spatial and temporal dimensions, and punctuate images.
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5. Post Mortem (2010)
The milieu of Post Mortem is set in 1973, Amid Pinochet’s military coup in Chile. The protagonist Mario (Alfredo Castro) works as a mortuary worker. He develops an attraction towards his neighbour Nancy (Antonia Zegers), who earns his living as a cabaret dancer. As their relationship is about to bloom, Nancy gets attracted to a pro-Allende activist, Victor (Marcelo Alonso). Soon the docile and placid life of Mario is consumed with turmoil as Nancy suddenly disappears.
The narrative style of the film is complex and plot points are multidirectional. The viewing experience initiates an argument that whether cultural and political conditions necessarily produce a particular kind of film or vice versa. Indeed, the relationship between film and culture, society and politics are such that it is difficult to claim any necessary causal relationship between the two. It can only be said that they are connected and influence one another. Post Mortem produces a popular cultural arena where the relationship between politics, culture and the film text emerges as obvious and natural, through such relationships.
Larraín’s directorial acumen reimagines the distinct period of history, etching the characters against the canvas, with perfect colour, design and execution. Along with his screenwriter, Mateo Iribarren, he depicts a simplistic story, capturing the various levels of philosophy, psychology, tradition and relationships perfectly.
4. The Club (2015)
In The Club, Larraín transports us into the chambers of a secluded house situated in a small seaside town. Here we follow the lives of four retired priests charged with various misdeeds and sins. They are living an extremely secluded existence. Their actions are monitored by a guardian sister. But when a fifth priest with a murky background arrives to join the bunch of sinners, the situation takes a drastic turn.
Pablo Larraín makes a frisky condemnation of the nature of human behaviour amongst the members of a Catholic church. He digs at the existential issues its characters are dealing with, or, in many instances, not dealing with, even as they tangentially dart in and across their lives. The troubled characters in the film yearn to make meaning out of the big old mess of life. It is essentially a character-centric drama and constantly questions: Who these characters are, why they are, how they are and became what they are. We never get easy answers to these queries.
The Club displays an excellent control over the medium using guilt as a metaphor to tell a compelling tale displaying sheer artistry that blends form and content of a provocative subject. At the 65th Berlin International Film Festival Larraín won the Jury Grand Prix.
3. Jackie (2016)
In Jackie, after the immediate aftermath of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, his wife Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) is in a state of immense shock and grief. She composes herself, takes care of the Kennedy family, and makes arrangements for the funeral procession as the grieving nation of America witnesses the exemplary resilience of their widowed first lady.
Larraín uses the tool of introspection as a device for the viewers to understand the various characters, more closely what drives their decisions and especially their demeanour. He brings his conviction, depth, power and impressive cinematic potential with which he captures one of the troubling phases of world history. From the first frame itself, the film has this kinetic energy that easily translates to the protagonist’s fierce and vulnerable personality as we see many sides to her character that are often contradictory.
This rich character study upends conventions and subverts notions of how biopics are usually told while delivering a deeply satisfying experience for genre fans. The film is narrated from the point of Jacqueline and unfolds in a nonlinear fashion. With daring sound design and impeccable performances by Natalie Portman, Jackie is a gripping drama that launched Larraín from the festival circuit to the Oscar race.
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2. Spencer (2021)
The 117 minutes long biopic drama, Spencer, is set in Norfolk in 1991. The narrative follows the Princess of Wales, Diana (Kristen Stewart), spending her Christmas holiday with Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) and members of the Royal Family, along with her sons William and Harry, at their Sandringham estate. Her mind is not at ease, and she is on the verge of having a nervous breakdown.
Pablo Larraín brings his mature ability to tell a complex tale with minimal canvas, handling the medium with control, restraint and extraordinary sensitivity. The exquisitely sculpted screenplay by Steven Knight indicates the end of Diana’s marriage might be the beginning of a journey to come alive with dignity and poise. The finely written characters persistently reveal new-side of them, pulling their sympathies every which way as the human condition is not just examined but also anatomized. The fluid camera movement, precise compositions, and use of light under the orchestration of cinematographer Claire Mathon are the key highlights of the visual experiences that the film delivers.
Spencer is an engrossing piece of work where dramatic tension escalates every second, proving that Larraín is an unassuming master at realism as he flexes his talent through his unmatched level of immersion as an artist.
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1. No (2012)
In 1988, the international community pressured the despot, Chilean dictator Pinochet, to hold a national election in Chile. If the citizen’s vote ‘yes’ Pinochet remains in power, extending his rule for another eight years. However, the negative vote of the city will empower them with the option to elect a new leader. To spearhead the ‘No’ campaign a young and successful advertisement creator René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) is saddled with the responsibility. The dramatic energy of the film is generated when Saavedra makes an effort on getting cynical Chileans to the polls versus Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro) leaving no stone unturned to shut down the “No” vote.
Pedro Peirano’s taut script and Pablo Larraín’s meticulous attention to detail maintain the spirit of the original historical event and translate it into the film medium with effectiveness and contemporary relevance. The filmmaker proves that it is possible to make a film with artistic values without surrendering the psychological truth of the content.
Gael García Bernal’s restrained, mature and dignified performance won him the best actor trophy at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival 2012. Larraín won an award at the “Directors’ Fortnight” section of the Cannes Film Festival. The film was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.