by Hope Madden
Pablo Larraín is having quite a year. In theaters already with his insightful vision of grief, celebrity and politics, Jackie, the Chilean filmmaker returns with a page from his own nation’s history books – Neruda.
Again eschewing the traditional biopic structure, Neruda drops us into the life of Chile’s most beloved poet and most famous Communist as political tides are changing. Post WWII, Pablo Neruda’s outspoken support of his party puts him on the wrong side of his government.
Though Neruda (Luis Gnecco) became the voice of resistance in Chile and around the world, his own life hardly mirrored the communist principles he championed. A poet, a lover and a man of grand excess, he spoke eloquently of a struggle he refused to live himself.
A fascinating set of conundrums, Neruda is a hard man to pin down cinematically – so Larraín doesn’t exactly try.
When Chile calls for Neruda’s arrest, we follow him underground, as does Inspector Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal – scene stealer).
Here is where Larrain, working from Guillermo Calderon’s inventive screenplay, gets a bit experimental to better serve his subject.
From Peluchonneau’s point of view, the film becomes hard-boiled detective pulp, a narrative device that allows Larraín to better explore the line between fact and fiction – and poetry.
The investigator becomes the antagonist in Neruda’s imagined persecution, allowing him the mythical martyrdom and drama he feels a man of his greatness deserves.
Gnecco’s performance hits all the right marks, creating a presence that’s simultaneously admirable, aggravating and disappointingly vain. Fine support from Mercedes Morán as Neruda’s longsuffering wife buoys the performance by articulating the effect he had on those around him.
But the fictional Peluchonneau runs away with the film. García Bernal’s oddball incompetent with his own delusions of grandeur brings color to the film as it transports the audience to a more literary landscape.
The conceit doesn’t always work. It often feels too cute. But there are several scenes where reality and fiction collide without a clear winner – one with Morán and a snowy finale, in particular – that elevate the entire project.
It’s an arresting and lovely near-miss.