Movie Review: Neruda

Thanks to films like THIS IS SPINAL TAP, we have the genre called “mockumentary”. Films like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT have given us the genre called “pseudo-documentary” and films like PATHS OF THE SOUL have pioneered the genre called “docufiction”. Now, with NERUDA, we are seeing the birth of a new film genre – the “meta-biopic”. This is a biographical film where at least one character knows he/she is a character in a biography. But NERUDA is more than that. It’s also a film noir and a delightfully quirky, dark comedy to boot.

Pablo Neruda was one of Chile’s greatest poets, but long before he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, he was also one of Chile’s most wanted men. A senator for the Chilean Communist Party, he helped González Videla ascend to the country’s presidency in 1946. But just two years later and with the Cold War emerging, Videla turned his back on his leftist comrades and swung the country hard to the right, rounding up communist and socialist sympathisers, and putting them in what were essentially concentration camps… that is, if they weren’t killed first. The film NERUDA focuses on that turbulent time when the poet went underground for just over a year before he was able to escape to neighbouring Argentina. Taking real life events and merging them with Neruda’s poetry, Chilean director Pablo Larraín (JACKIE) and screenwriter Guillermo Calderón have created a whimsical portrait of a man who must have been larger than life.

The narrator of this tale of fancy is police prefect Oscar Peluchonneau (Mexican actor Gael García Bernal, THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES), a fictional character who, not coincidentally, has the same name as the man who served as Chile’s real Chief of the Investigations Police in 1952. After Peluchonneau is tasked by Videla to “capture and humiliate” Neruda, he begins a cat-and-mouse chase that takes the two men from the capital Santiago to the port city of Valparaiso and finally across the snow-capped Andes to the Argentine border. Neruda (Chilean actor Luis Gnecco, who is perhaps best known in his country for its version of the TV show, THE OFFICE) though, loves the attention he’s getting from his former friends and he takes every opportunity to not only rub their noses in the dirt but also to continue publishing and disseminating his poetry to Chile’s proletarian masses who turn his words into their anthem of resistance. Peluchonneau, who has doggedness of Inspector Javert and the incompetence of Inspector Clouseau, is always one step behind Neruda even as the poet hides in plain sight. (At one point we see the bon-vivant Neruda sneak out of his protected safehouse and head over to his favourite brothel for a bit of bacchanalian R&R.) But the policeman remains resolute throughout even when he captures Neruda’s wife, Argentine artist Delia del Carril (Argentine actress Mercedes Morán, THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES) and learns from her that he is only a supporting character in this story. It’s as if the book has already been written — by Neruda himself, no less — and he and his wife know how it ends. Wonderful!

But who really is the protagonist here and who is the antagonist? Both Neruda and Peluchonneau wear both hats and they alternate between the two throughout the story. Both Gnecco and García Bernal put in solid performances here. Gnecco plays the portly poet (the actor reportedly gained 50 pounds for the role) with superb gusto and charm. If the real Neruda was like this, it’s no wonder that he had so many ardent followers. García Bernal, for his part, plays the prefect delightfully straight up even if, as Peluchonneau tells us in a voice over, his own roots may be a slight fabrication to suit his own political ambitions.

With JACKIE and NERUDA (as well as the film NO from a few years back), Larraín has proven himself to be one of world cinema’s most exciting filmmakers today. His next project, THE TRUE AMERICAN, starring Tom Hardy, is in the early stages of production.

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