Director: Pablo Larraín
Stars: Luis Gnecco, Gael García Bernal, Mercedes Morán
Hot on the heels of his exemplary English language debut Jackie, Chilean maestro Pablo Larraín returns to home soil for another biopic and again he manages to buck many of the trends that dog the genre and leave it languishing in cinematic irrelevancy. The year is 1948 and his focus is Don Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco), senator in Chile’s increasingly fascist government, outspoken communist and established and lauded poet. As the government clamps down on his right to express himself he is labelled an enemy of the state. This leaves two options; face jail or flee. Neruda chooses to flee and in doing so he ‘creates’ the roll of hunter to his hunted.
That’s where Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) steps in; an arrogant, clueless, self-deceiving police prefect impassioned at the prospect of gaining fame, notoriety and respect for capturing the elusive Neruda. Peluchonneau is our narrator for the story that follows, dryly deriding the film’s erstwhile hero with laughable pomposity as Larraín’s film races before us, a flighty, impatient and rich experience once you’ve grown accustomed to its fanciful tempo.
What follows is a game of cat and mouse, but a particularly mischievous one. Neruda’s assumed responsibility as a writer and voice of his people sprawls out from his pen and changes the very nature of the narrative, reshaping it into a conundrum of truth vs fiction that one suspects the Coen Brothers would receive with unwavering glee. Traditionally in a case of cop versus criminal such as this you would anticipate firm divisions. The cop – your narrator in fact – is the protagonist; dedicated, righteous, soul-searching. The criminal therefore is the antagonist; rascally, corrupted, morally ambiguous. However that isn’t the case here, and nor is the reverse true.
Throughout late stages of the film – as it curiously grows more and more self-aware, Adaptation-style – Peluchonneau becomes fixated by the fear that he is merely a supporting character in Neruda’s story. That by establishing the circumstances that led to his denouncement, Neruda has effectively ‘invented’ Peluchonneau. It’s a paranoia that near unravels the character, and Bernal burrows into it fervently. The irony is that Bernal is perceived as the supporting actor here through the sheer gesture of giving the film’s title to the other man. But wait. Is his screen time that much less than Gnecco’s? Stack them up side by side and I’d be curious to know the result. Larraín’s film is generous to the pair of them. Neither play hero, neither villain. With so much fiction swirling around, this approach nails a certain pragmatic layer of truth.
Larraín has presented himself as something of a showman before, but Neruda is as fanciful as I’ve seen him, especially recently. 2015’s The Club was a stifling experience, a tight little fist of a film, while Jackie felt inscrutably constructed, each shot slotting firmly into the bigger picture with rigid exactitude. Neruda is no less meticulous, but it does run through its many, many scenes with a kind of unbridled flare. It’s a relatively trim film, but the sprawl and pace is impressive. No scene outstays it’s welcome, and Larraín nods lovingly to the movie making methods of his subject’s era. There’s a lot of playfully inauthentic rear-screen projection. This plays into the fiction-within-fiction mockery of Guillermo Calderón’s witty script, but it’s also an expression of how buoyant the movie is as a whole, recalling the aforementioned Coen Brothers but also bringing to mind Jean-Pierre Jeunet around the time of his passion project Amelie.
High praise indeed, but that’s hardly something unheard of when looking at the work of Pablo Larraín. Yet these feel like new comparisons for him, a reflection of his ability to swerve between sensibilities while retaining authoritative ownership of his films. He’s something of a chameleon, hiding in plain sight. But no matter the colours he wears, he’s always the chameleon underneath. Neruda would make for a fine double-bill with Jackie as a testament to how flexible the biopic remains and one hopes that the exposure of his fine Natalie Portman vehicle encourages a wider audience to dabble in this movie.
It feels as though I’ve given out a lot of four star scores lately, and that a four out of five can often feel lazy or soft, a token recommendation that itself doesn’t investigate the film to any interesting degree. I don’t think it’s due to me being soft per se but rather that, in my opinion, we seem to be enjoying a period of very good films (with some notable exceptions). With that in mind, here’s another one for the pile, but don’t let the potential familiarity of the score dismiss the merits of this smart and playful experience. The relative obscurity of the subject to UK audience members might lead to tentativeness but rest assured, once you’re in there, Neruda is very, very giving.