Film Review: Neruda

Gael García Bernal plays a make-believe police inspector hunting fugitive poet and politician Pablo Neruda during Chile’s 1948 right-wing crackdown in Pablo Larraín’s handsome, thoughtful and wisecracking metafictional lark.
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Pablo Larraín has said flat-out that he didn’t want to make a biopic of Chile’s hero poet Pablo Neruda. And that’s a wise decision. Compressing Neruda’s incident-packed life, which whipsawed from writing yearning and experimental poetry to traveling the world in the diplomatic service to pursuing a career in domestic politics and spending years on the run as a political exile, into a single film would have produced fatigue, confusion, or at the very least severe neck injuries.

Instead, Larraín follows both a highly specific and broadly creative tack. First, he zeroes in on a hinge moment in Neruda’s life: It’s 1948 and the relatively new Senator Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is in the thick of a political crisis. A hefty but formidable sensualist famous for his poems of love, he is also a staunch Communist who lectures the other members of the fractious body in sonorous tones (what his wife lovingly calls his “poet’s voice”) on how the Soviet Union saved the world from the Nazi threat.

This makes Neruda a prime target for the right-wing authoritarian government, which is then rounding up union leaders and other supposed dissidents and throwing them into concentration camps in the desert—one of which is run by Augusto Pinochet, a figure whose ghost is rarely far from Larraín’s imagination. On the orders of the Party—and Neruda was nothing if not loyal to Moscow—he must go into hiding with his wife Delia (Mercedes Morán, a wry counterpoint to Gnecco’s theatricality).

Larraín then uses this biographical fragment as a springboard to launch a metafictional inquiry into the nature of Neruda’s art, Chile’s fractured soul, and the man himself. No small task. But as he showed in 2002’s quirky advertising and politics satire No, Larraín is a dab hand at investigating serious topics with humor, sublime artistry and a welcome lack of pretense. Set on Neruda’s trail is police inspector Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal). A slim whippet of a huntsman in a succession of trim suits and snappy hats whose serious intent is belied by Bernal’s curiously affecting gentleness, Óscar seems at first the dedicated eagle-eyed pursuer that every fantasy-driven artiste like Neruda would love to have on their trail. That he is quickly revealed to be a figment of Neruda’s imagination, one fueled by the poet’s love of pulp crime novels, makes him a no less crucial element of this oddball chase film.

Óscar’s purplish narration of the pursuit itself tracks the escapee versifier’s grand notion of his own importance—a notion that, it must be said, is echoed and amplified by all manner of people he comes across. One of Larraín’s most affecting scenes is the montage where we see numbers of ordinary Chileans listening raptly to Neruda’s leaping verse. It’s as though they are listening to the heartbeat of their nation. Starkly contrasted to these raptures, and the almost Peter Sellers-like cluelessness of Óscar and the police, are the glimpses of the desolate concentration camps in the middle of the desert, one of which the film pointedly notes is run by a young Augusto Pinochet, decades before he would turn such places into graveyards for the people whom Neruda wrote and fought for.

The compressed time frame of Neruda, covering seemingly only about a year in his event-packed life, lends itself at first to a frenetic pace. Larraín’s camera darts through the palaces and parties of the country’s rulers and intelligentsia, among whom Neruda flits like a slightly rotund imp, engaging in verbal fisticuffs with any and all. Once he goes into hiding, the film pulls back into a slower rhythm that finds Neruda’s sizeable ego getting the better of him in close quarters and indulging in ever more reckless behavior. The slack is picked up to a degree by Óscar (whom Neruda calls “my phantom in uniform”), invested with an ever greater and more comic bafflement by Bernal, who seems perpetually on the verge of capturing his prey, only to be stymied yet again.

The playful but intense spirit of Neruda takes a welcome turn in its curious near-to-final segment. Covering Neruda’s final escape from Chile on horseback through the snow-covered Andes, the film sends Óscar in diligent but ever more hopeless pursuit. Now dreamy and abstract, it plays like some semi-comedic variation on The Revenant. Only in Neruda, the stakes feel immensely larger than which man will triumph over the other. As the dark-eyed artist flees to write and fight another day, it’s as though the entire country is escaping with him.

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