REVIEW: Neruda [2016]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 107 minutes | Release Date: August 11th, 2016 (Chile)
Studio: The Orchard
Director(s): Pablo Larraín
Writer(s): Guillermo Calderón

“He’s the king of love”

Pablo Neruda was a Chilean legend. He was a poet who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1971, a diplomat holding multiple posts including that of Senator for the Communist Party, and ultimately so feared by President González Videla and President Augusto Pinochet that his death is rumored to have been murder hidden underneath a cancer diagnosis. It’s a diverse and implausible life that could just as easily have been fiction rather than the reality it was. He rallied together a country desperate to overcome its oppressors and achieve social equality (despite his being a bourgeois womanizer far higher on the financial scale than those he fought for with his words) and he became a hero whose work will continue to live on long past today.

This sort of life is one that’s ripe for a cinematic biopic treatment and who better than Chilean director Pablo Larraín to do it? Well, it’s funny because the man behind Oscar nominee No has been quoted during the publicity trail for Jackie—his Neruda follow-up—as despising biopics. That’s saying something considering No followed the team behind Chile’s famed 1988 referendum campaign, Neruda is about the titular poet, and Jackie recreates Jackie Kennedy’s experience during the aftermath of her husband’s assassination. But while those all sound biographical in nature, the latter is the only one that isn’t almost completely fictionalized. No is a dramatized version of events and the plot of Neruda for all intents and purposes never happened. Larraín loves a good backdrop to paint over.

I haven’t seen his debut, but everything after includes a moment in Chilean history that permeates the central drama (save the Texas-set Jackie). Neruda is no different: the artist’s exile in response to Videla (Alfredo Castro) outlawing communism and threatening jail time becoming Larraín’s canvas. This was a period when Pablo (Luis Gnecco) began writing his epic Canto General, continued leading the party from underground, and eventually fled through the Andes into Argentina before traveling the world until would-be presidential nominee Salvador Allende invited him back home in 1952. But as a character in Guillermo Calderón‘s fictionalized script posits, hunting Neruda without capture may have actually served Videla’s goals best in not making him into a martyr. So Pablo transforms himself into a symbol for liberty instead.

Calderón and Larraín therefore manufacture a cat-and-mouse police chase with Inspector Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) serving as our narrator and Videla’s man on the ground to show Pablo’s evolution. Where there was once an aristocrat enjoying his lavish lifestyle with painter Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán) by his side soon becomes a man bored with hiding who decides to walk the streets in broad daylight hugging the less fortunate while exclaiming how victory would lift them all up. And in the style of the violent and sexy thrillers he loved to read, “faux” Neruda commences a tongue-in-cheek game to rub Peluchonneau’s face in his own failures. Every time Pablo knows Óscar is hot on his tail, he leaves a book in plain sight with a personalized message.

So he’s always one step ahead of the police, president, and desperate nation in need of his guidance. As Peluchonneau tells it through voiceover, the poet was a romantic and worthy adversary—a stark contrast to how the characters within Óscar’s story (the film’s mechanics render it such) describe the detective himself as half stupid, half idiot. (An Óscar Peluchonneau Bustamante interestingly served as Police Investigations Director General for less than two months in 1952, four years after Neruda fled and therefore impossible to be included in the film with any semblance of historical accuracy.) Óscar tirelessly moves forward as Pablo carefully inches away with the help from Pablo Derqui‘s Víctor Pey and Michael Silva‘s Álvaro Jara. Unfortunately this constant back and forth proves stale rather than suspenseful.

We never really fear Bernal’s character will capture Gnecco’s or feel like the latter’s Neruda is even in danger. Much like his ego, we believe he’s untouchable—insulated from pursuers and loved by supporters enough to keep him safe. This is the worst possible outcome for the film since his private life has nothing to grab hold of considering Delia should leave his cheating hedonist and those assisting with his secrecy should question their loyalty’s purpose. I guess we’re supposed to admire the man Pablo becomes, but I frankly didn’t see much of a difference from start to finish. And letting the film go meta by telling its fake characters they’re fake only makes matters worse later by giving the fictional figure’s evolution more credence than the poet’s.

Neruda becomes a supporting character to his own film as Calderón and Larraín give Óscar the narration and our intrigue. Even though we don’t believe he will capture his target, we at least pull for him to do so because his inner monologue lets us in to understand him more than his counterpart ever does. I’m going to hope this is merely a result of my knowing very little of Chilean history and even less about the artist once dubbed as “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language” by novelist Gabriel García Márquez. Perhaps a cursory knowledge of this man and what he stood for is necessary to see him as more than the object of Óscar’s pursuit. That’s all he really was to me.

It’s a shame because there are many interesting choices I couldn’t grasp as more than missed opportunities. Why are so many scenes of actors riding in cars shot against an obvious green screen despite multiple cuts showing them on an actual street too? Why do we spend so much time with Neruda from his perspective when he isn’t telling the story? I wonder if the entirety being seen through Óscar’s eyes would have been more successful because hearing him speak while watching actions outside his vision is a distracting incongruity. In the end Larraín’s love letter to Neruda the man becomes a love letter to his art and style. Calderón channels the legend to speak about him—a wonderful concept that never truly came together for this outsider.

courtesy of TIFF

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