A wondrous pseudo-biopic that comes from a place of love towards Neruda and his poetry but which briefly falls victim to its own ingenious machinations.
In a film scene where ever so often a new biographical film (or biopic, in short) gets announced, it is hard to view Neruda as fitting into the same category as The Imitation Game, The Danish Girl or even director Pablo Larraín’s most recent effort, Jackie. That is because, rather than retelling a story, Neruda concocts one that is ingrained in fact and truth but one that still allows itself to drift into the realms of fiction and poetry.
The film is set in 1948 in Chile and starts with Senator Pablo Neruda (played by Luis Gnecco) denouncing the Government for abolishing the Communist Party. Neruda, an important icon of the left-wing, is then impeached by President González Videla (Alfredo Castro) whom orders Police Prefect Oscar Peluchonneau (a character created for the movie and brought to life by Gael García Bernal) to find and detain the poet. As he flees the country alongside his wife and painter Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), Neruda ceaselessly teases his detainer with intricate clues about his whereabouts, turning this chase into more of a duel of cunning and wits.
Narratively, this film is consistent and focused. It goes to great lengths to render not just the voice of Pablo Neruda the poet and the impact and strength of his poetry, but also the voice of the real Pablo Neruda, a communist snob who has to face his anxieties. However, despite its merits, as the film gradually embraces its own conceit and fiction, it also becomes harder to follow. The artificial character and the machinations included start to run on fumes by the end which, although of an ethereal beauty, is maybe too ostentatious.
Seeing how this movie is essentially character-driven, Larraín expertly introduces all the characters and gives a clear sense of their political convictions (if any) and moral dilemmas. What is more impressive is that the movie does not linger and that effective setup goes by quite quickly and, before long, Neruda is on the run. The movie is then propelled forwards by some great characters which are portrayed by even greater actors. The stand-out in this extraordinary cast is Gael García Bernal whose detective Oscar Peluchonneau is as chilling as he is relentless.
Unfortunately, the film is let down by some unsavoury stylistic choices and a seemingly lack of vision. The scenes are jarringly cut and the lens flares, even though they are seldom used to great results, are overabundant and overused. In fact, most directorial techniques employed here suffer from the same conundrum. Larraín’s long one-shot takes are impressive, but used haphazardly in the film. And it is really a shame that such things happen, Larraín having proved himself as a great director not only in this movie (with the absolutely breath-taking snow scenes that were filmed on location) but in many of his previous productions.
Ultimately, Neruda is better perceived as a ‘Nerudian’ crime story rather than a film that focuses on his life and literary skill. Despite this and its shortcomings, it is a great incursion into the life of a great poet and, more precisely, into how two art forms, namely film and poetry, come together to create something beautiful but imaginary.
Neruda (2016) directed by Pablo Larraín, is distributed in the UK by Network Releasing. Certificate 15.