Directed by: Pablo Larraín.
Written by: Guillermo Calderón
Starring: Luis Gnecco (Pablo Neruda), Gael García Bernal (Oscar Peluchoneau), Alfredo Castro (Gabriel González Videla), Mercedes Morán (Delia del Carril), Diego Muñoz (Martínez), Pablo Derqui (Víctor Pey), Michael Silva (Àlvaro Jara), Jaime Vadell (Jorge Alessandri), Marcelo Alonso (Pepe Rodriguez), Francisco Reyes (Bianchi), Alejandro Goic (Jorge Bellett), Emilio Gutièrrez Caba (Pablo Picasso).
It can be an odd experience watching a biopic of a famous person of whom you don’t really know anything about. My knowledge of Pablo Neruda pretty much begins (and ends) with The Simpsons episode where Lisa quotes him, and Bart says “I am aware of the work of Pablo Neruda”. I didn’t even know that he was a politician in addition to being a poet. In Pablo Larrain’s Neruda, it’s both the writer and the politician that the filmmaker is interested in – concentrating on a brief time in the late 1940s, when Chile outlawed Communism, and arrested many Communists. Neruda was a Senator for the Communist party at the time – and one of its highest profile members. The movie opens with apparently all the Senators in a large bathroom (in case you’re in doubt about what Larrain thinks of them), in the aftermath of a speech that Neruda gave denouncing the President of Chile – a man he had previously supported. For a little more than a year, Neruda lived underground in Chile until he was finally able to escape to over the mountains Argentina – where he lived in exile for a few years. Neruda, the film, concentrates on the man hiding out – and Oscar Peluchoneau, the cop hot on his trail.
It really is Peluchoneau who is the film’s most interesting character – not least because the film openly admits that he is a fictional character, created by Neruda himself. Peluchoneau is played by Gael Garcia Bernal with a knowing blankness – he looks like he’s straight out of a 1940s film nor – he’s all hat, mustache and attitude, and no substance. Neruda leaves him detective novels throughout the film – a way to mock Peluchoneau for missing him yet again, but perhaps also to let Peluchoneau know how he is supposed to behave. The film has one character explain why it’s better for the government for Neruda not to be captured – they need him out of the way, but not arrested – that may make him into a martyr – so perhaps the reason why Neruda invents Peluchoneau is because no one was really chasing him at all, and yet in order to become the kind of downtrodden, obsessed folk hero Neruda wanted to be, he needed someone chasing him.
Luis Gnecco is fine as Neruda – he’s a large, bald man, who seems both to want to capitalize on his fame, and ignore it when it doesn’t suit him. He likes to go out and party – yet he’s recognized everywhere, and asked to recite the same poem again and again. He is the life of the party, but also tired of being the life of the party – both in love with his wife, and yet cruel to her at times (he tells at one point to go ahead and kill yourself – that way, I’ll be able to write about you for another 20 years). In many ways, these scenes are both fairly standard in a biopic – the great man is also a real person, and not always a great one – and different for one – these are not the kind of scenes that normally go into one, because Neruda isn’t really doing anything in them. For a film a politician, Neruda never really makes it clear what the titular character believes in aside from “communism”. To be honest, these scenes are more than a little dull at times – especially as the film progresses, and seems to be repeating itself.
What is never dull though is the filmmaker – which again shows Larrain at peak form. Just a weak after praising his work on Jackie – his English language debut, and one of the best films of the year – I have to praise Larrain again here. The cinematography here is excellent – playing with classic Hollywood stylings (like rear projection), while using the digital form to make a film steeped in shadows. Aside from the score – because Mika Levi’s Jackie score is next level brilliant – Neruda is every bit the technical achievement Jackie was.