The 2016 feature Neruda brings together two creators of the same (first) name – the character of the legendary Nobel prize winner and celebrated poet and political activist Pablo Neruda, whose original name was Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, serves as the center, the source material and the inspiration to Pablo Larraín, the barely 40-year-old Chilean filmmaker, who last year managed to create not one, but two unconventional biographic films – Neruda and Jackie.
While Jackie received three Oscar nominations at the 89th Academy Awards, Neruda entered the same race as the official Chilean entry for the Best Foreign Language Film; it ultimately was not nominated, but that does not mean it lags behind; compared to Jackie, with which Larraín introduced himself on a more global scale, Neruda may be seen as the smaller, less booming production of the two, but the similarities between the two cannot be denied: just like Jackie (and several previous of Larraín’s features), Neruda is also heavily character-oriented, character-personal and tells the story in a stubbornly non-linear fashion. They both do so with much liberty, including an extremely free interpretation of historical facts while telling the story of two people who created their own legends in the first place. But this is when the same-year film siblings part ways; Neruda is less loudly dramatic, less sensationalistic and far more lyrical than Jackie.
The screenplay, written by Guillermo Calderón (he also wrote Larraín 2015 feature, The Club), centres on merely 13 months of Neruda’s life; from the get go, Larraín was sceptic whether it was even possible to put Pablo Neruda into a movie, but the writer came up with a shared, at moments diluted perspective between Neruda and the ‘fictional’ cop (a cop by the same name existed, but has basically nothing in common with the character) who is chasing him, and with it came a different take on the story: In 1948, the communist poet and politician Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) finds himself in hiding from the authorities after President González Videla (a cameo by Larraín’s muse, Alfredo Castro) issues an arrest warrant on his head. The president dispatches a small-time police inspector to catch Neruda on the down-low, to avoid it becoming an international scandal, which could easily happen, given the status of the poet. The cop, Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), who is chased by his own set of demons and is later in the movie described by one of the characters as “half moron, half idiot”, takes the task to heart and sets out on a rigorous chase. While this part of the story puts the “anti” into the Larraín-labelled anti-biopic, the biographical parts are delivered more in the form and persona of Neruda himself, as we follow the life he leads in hiding with his wife Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán) up until his escape through the Andes.
The pace of the film is for the most part fast, but has some draggingly slow moments; the ending feels slightly forced and overdone, but at the same time, strangely, appropriately dramatic. Neruda maintains Larraín’s Chilean cinematographic and by now characteristically subdued hue filters that stood out also in The Club (this is not surprising, since Larraín largely worked with the same team on his past projects, which includes the director of photography, Sergio Armstrong); but Neruda features also noir elements when Peluchonneau’s character takes over the screen. There are other elements of film noir present, as well as elements of black comedy, with the ever present theme of detective novels that serve as a connection between Neruda and Peluchonneau in their cat-and-mouse chase (and also as a tool with which Neruda both mocks and fuels the latter’s character, giving us the perpetual feeling that Neruda is, in fact, the cat of the story). The details are well thought-out and used to create what Larraín called “the Neruda cosmos”.
The film has many meta dimensions unto itself – it is a story about people who write their own stories or have them written by others with varying degrees of reality and fiction – as Delia states in the film to Oscar, “In this fiction, we all revolve around the protagonist.” She adds about Neruda that “(…) in his head, he is writing a fascinating novel. He wrote you as the tragic cop. He wrote me as the absurd woman. And he wrote himself as a depraved fugitive.” This depraved persona is brilliantly portrayed by Luis Gnecco; his Neruda is playful and serious; captivating and oozing charisma. He is believable every step of the way and manages to successfully show Neruda as two people – Ricardo Reyes Basoalto and the public persona that often takes over the man that created it, handling the fugitive part of his situation with moments of excess and debauchery. Gael García Bernal perfectly delivers the pale, lifeless existence of the puppet of the state that is Oscar Peluchonneau, gradually bringing life to the character as the complex relationship between him and Neruda grows into something between hate/love and obsession/admiration.
The film feels personal throughout, since Neruda gave his nation a voice that still resonates, which was ardently observed by the entire production team; his poetry is present in all corners of the movie. Given the non-linear way of storytelling, many scenes are actual poems – love poems, political poems, angry poems – that were given the breath of life in a deliberate context; we could go as far as to say that the whole film is a live-action Neruda poem – playful, twisted, beautifully emoted, deliberately lost and then almost too openly found, where half the lines feel like actual quotes. It manages to remind us why Neruda was loved (and still is!) by people from all walks of life. All of it makes for an intelligent, rich and delightful watch and – in case you have not caught it before – do not find yourself surprised if it will pass on the “Neruda virus” and make you reach after one of Neruda’s numerous works to get a further fix!
Written by Sanja Struna
All photos © Fabula, Funny Balloons, AZ Films, Setembro Cine, Willies Movies, A.I.E., 2016 Santiago de Chile, 2016
- Available on DVD, Blu-ray, iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Curzon Home Cinema & BFI Player 10th July