In 1948 Chile, famed poet and senator Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) has made major political waves. An outspoken man-of-the-people communist, Neruda is not one to shy away from espousing his beliefs to power, making some powerful enemies in the process. This penchant for fierce candidness results in a warrant being issued for his arrest, sending him into hiding alongside his loyal wife Delia (Mercedes Morán) and aided by a vast network of loyalists. Hot on his trail is an obsessive policeman (Gael Garcia Bernal) who despises Neruda for all that he symbolizes.
The setup for Neruda, directed by Pablo Larraín (whose Jackie, another unconventional biopic, is also in theaters), sounds like something on par with The Fugitive, with a hunted man just barely keeping one step ahead of the determined lawman out to bring him in. Yet Neruda is hardly a thriller of that ilk. Never does it leave the audience breathless with anxiety over Neruda’s capture. If anything, Neruda seems above it all, never in any real danger no matter what he does. Bernal’s cop, Peluchonneau, is portrayed as a boastful yet inept boob, incessantly offering up flowery narration about the hatred he holds for his prey that only serves to make him seem more foolish. In a peculiar way, the film somewhat suggests an arthouse, Spanish-language Smokey and the Bandit.
Neruda splits its focus, acting in one respect as a character study of its titular subject, a man who lustily takes in life. Neruda is a hedonist given to throwing ribald parties and frequenting bustling brothels. He’s a gifted writer and a stirring political figure, but he’s also a man with an ego as large as his generous waistline. At one point in a spat with Delia, he spits out “Kill yourself if you want to. That way, I’ll write about you another 20 years.” The film neglects to hide the warts adorning a figure whom it could be very tempting to portray as purely inspirational.
The other focus of Neruda is a bit trickier, though certainly not wanting for ambition. In a conversation between Delia and Peluchonneau late in the film, she points out to the inspector that he doesn’t exist, that he’s just a supporting character created by Neruda himself. That goes a long way toward explaining why the character had seemed so artificial in construction all throughout the film, his baroque musings sounding distinctly writerly in a way that doesn’t sync up with anyone else in the film. Yet as a meta-narrative leap, I’m not sure it works for the film. I’m all for doing whatever is necessary to liven up mundane biopics, but skewing the film through the looking glass of authorial fiction lands as something of a head-scratcher.
Neruda is a beautifully shot film, particularly in its snowbound climax, where it seems to reach for the same sort of haunting blood-in-the-snow fatalism as The Revenant. Gnecco and Bernal both put in fantastic character work. The former makes more of an impression, but the latter is saddled with a much more difficult character to embody, making his work all the more admirable. I don’t know that the film comes across as a true portrait of Neruda’s place in history, but its examination of the relationship between art and artist is probably more interesting than a more straightforward piece might have been. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but the latter is much more enjoyable.
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