Two films being shown at the 25th Philadelphia Film Festival deal with the lives and work of two important poets: the American Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) and Chilean Pablo Neruda (1904-1973). Despite the similarity of their themes, these films about the creative process could not be more different.
Emily was a Miranda
A Quiet Passion (2016) directed and written by British director Terence Davies, portrays Emily Dickinson, charismatically played by Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City fame, in a realistic fashion, filmed mostly indoors in a dark palette suited to the feelings of claustrophobia that the poet experienced in the last decades of her life. Her poetry is intertwined in voice-over narration with the apparent domestic tranquility of Emily and her sister Lavinia (superbly played by Jennifer Ehle) who lived together in their parents’ home.
Neither sister married. In fact, her transcendental, sublime poetry shows the writer’s inner struggle with the mores of her times that she felt her entire life. The script focuses on family relationships with little contact with the outside world. It ignores Dickinson’s correspondence with her mentors Samuel Bowles and Thomas Higginson, which would have made for a more interesting plot. Davies doesn’t include Dickinson’s correspondence with her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert, either. Surprisingly, we never see the poet in the process of creating her work.
The film’s strength of the film lays in Cynthia Nixon’s powerful characterization of Dickinson. Her nuanced acting and clear eyes reveal as much as the powerful words of her poetry. Her face morphs beautifully into the only authenticated daguerreotype of the poet, which is housed at Amherst College. In the last part of the film, always wearing the white cotton dress that she would wear to her death and burial, Emily Dickinson is haunting and mesmerizing.
Larraín reunites with Gnecco and Bernal
Pablo Larraín’s Neruda (2016), on the other hand, is highly inventive and postmodern. Its success is aided by Luis Gnecco’s strong performance in the title role and Guillermo Calderón’s clever script, which covers the peripatetic years of Neruda’s work as a Communist activist and senator and adds a fictitious story about a police detective. Gael García Bernal provides voiceover narration and plays the detective — sporting a comical thin mustache — with gusto. Larraín directed Gnecco and Bernal in No (2012) and the positive chemistry is evident. This director, showing his artistry in both Spanish and English, also had another film in the festival, Jackie (2016), a biopic of the iconic First Lady portrayed by Natalie Portman.
It is noteworthy that Pablo Larraín highlights the poet’s Communism more than his poetry, particularly because his father and mother were political figures on the right wing of the Chilean government and he was clearly anti-Pinochet. In the complicated plot, Neruda escapes to Argentina, with the cinematic Andes as the backdrop, knowing that the detective is on his trail. In a game of cat and mouse, the poet leaves detective novels to his persecutor as bait. This is one genre that Neruda did not write, although we see him busily writing in Larraín’s film.
If you missed A Quiet Passion, Neruda or even Jackie during the Festival, don’t despair; these three films will be in wide release in the coming months.