FILM REVIEW: Neruda

It’s 1948 and the Cold War has reached Chile. In congress, Senator Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) accuses the government of betraying the Communist Party and is swiftly impeached by President González Videla (Alfredo Castro). Police Prefect Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) is assigned to arrest the poet. Neruda tries to flee the country with his wife, the painter Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), but they are forced into hiding.

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Inspired by the dramatic events of his new life as a fugitive, Neruda writes his epic collection of poems, “Canto General”. Meanwhile, in Europe, the legend of the poet hounded by the policeman grows, and artists led by Pablo Picasso clamor for Neruda’s freedom. Neruda, however, sees this struggle with his nemesis Peluchonneau as an opportunity to reinvent himself. He plays with the inspector, leaving clues designed to make their game of cat-and-mouse more dangerous, more intimate. In this story of a persecuted poet and his implacable adversary, Neruda recognises his own heroic possibilities: a chance to become both a symbol for liberty and a literary legend.

Neruda was not what I expected.

It was much more intriguing.

It was better.

It started like I thought it would: A charismatic politician fending for his compatriots’ beliefs through poetry and wit at a time when communists were no longer welcome in Chile.

Long political conversations set the scene and the era. So far so good…we’re in full biopic. I know it gets intense, and even though I know how Neruda life ends, it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it. Like The Social Network, or Valkyrie.

I look forward to seeing the director’s take on the poet’s life. After all, I’m in Larrain’s good hands.

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To start with, he casts comic actor Luis Gnecco as Neruda, a bold but respectable choice as Gnecco – on top of looking remarkably like Neruda – gives a strong and convincing performance. He is powerful, charismatic, stubborn and imperturbable. He strangely reminds me of Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday. Larrain also chose to paint his more hedonistic, champagne-socialist womanising side, occasionally showing under an unflattering egotistic light. So there is my first surprise.

Then, the movie carries on unravelling unexpectedly when the voiceover, which I thought informative albeit surprisingly biased, materialises into Peluchonneau’s voice, a policeman determined to catch Neruda, changing the whole dynamic of the movie. We’re now bordering on film noir, flirting with the idea of a thriller. Flirting only, as the movie’s snail pace doesn’t land himself too many edge-of-the-seat-grabbing moments. There’s the occasional mild tension caused by the policeman closing up on the poet – there’s slight frisson, generated by the multiple scenes delightfully reminiscent of The Third Man, in which a hatted Neruda walks around after hours in the deserted town’s shadows.

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But a thriller this isn’t. As the movie progresses, the policeman’s tortured introspection takes over; his ambitions and reasons for chasing the poet become more apparent and the movie takes yet another turn, slightly fantastical this time.

As his quest goes on, it becomes apparent that Peluchonneau doesn’t want to find Neruda, but wants Neruda to find him. And the recognition he craves has to come from the poet, and the poet only. Peluchonnneau’s presence increases, slowly but surely, until he finally eclipses the eponymous character. And as the dark streets of the city slowly fade to reveal the bright snow of the Andes, he is finally revealed, to all and to himself.

There is some Fellini in this movie and a hint of Rohmer too, in Larrain’s obvious enjoyment of filming those long, beautiful scenes. And there is a lot of poetry in the cinematography.

This isn’t the story of Neruda’s life…it is the celebration of Neruda’s poetry.

score 3

Review by B. F. Jones

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