Directed by Pablo Larraín
Opens December 16
A deconstructed biopic that takes the form of a cat-and-mouse metafiction, the Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s Neruda, which follows the titular poet-senator during his 1948 flight into exile, nonetheless doesn’t feel the least bit stuffy, moving at a dizzying pace and showing, if anything, a bit too much intoxication with its own freewheeling inventions. The film gets underway as Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco), a proud showman beloved by Santiago society, goes underground with his wife (Mercedes Morán) after the newly heavy-handed president (Larraín axiom Alfredo Castro) outlaws Communism, a political doctrine as vital to the poet as free verse. Neruda might be the title character, but Larraín and screenwriter Guillermo Calderón contrive to make him one of two protagonists. Detective Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), hot on the Neruda’s trail, is the other, providing the film’s windbag voiceover. A mediocrity with a taste for fascism, Peluchonneau finally sees, with this particular case, his chance to make history—though he may or may not be a figment of Neruda’s prodigious imagination, a creative attempt by the literary celebrity to reaffirm the meaning of his life and work during a highly turbulent period.
The third feature by the 40-year-old Larraín released stateside this year, the formally playful Neruda marks the culmination of an apparent career year for the director, a steadily rising star since the end of the aughts, when his black-comic feature about pathological pop-cultural impersonation, Tony Manero, provoked strong feelings as it made the festival rounds. Thankfully, the new movie is a much livelier affair than either of its very-near-contemporaries in the filmmaker’s oeuvre, The Club (a dingy morality play about disgraced priests who show no interest in repentance) or Jackie (the over-the-top Natalie Portman vehicle with which the filmmaker just made his English-language debut). This is due not only to the velocity of Neruda’s action but also to the quality of its performances—particularly that by Gnecco, who ably conveys the gravity of the writer’s inward convictions as well as the orotund magnetism of his public recitals. (It is perhaps no coincidence that García Bernal and Gnecco also both appeared in Larraín’s best work, 2012’s No, an arch drama about the role of political advertisements in the 1988 plebiscite that unseated Augusto Pinochet.)
As a thriller of politics and poetry, and as a study of an unlikely symbiotic relationship, Neruda certainly has its felicities, but throughout Larraín and Calderón prove all too eager to point out the sheer artifice of their endeavor. Here, characters often have continuous conversations in discontinuous locations, and rear projection gives a wobbly floating-world aspect to the scenes of driving. Shot by veteran Larraín collaborator Sergio Armstrong, the film registers light almost as if it’s having an allergic reaction to it, often allowing a harsh blown-out haze and lens-flare arrays to dominate the frame. Meanwhile, what should be the film’s pinnacle of suspense—a showdown in the mountains along the snowy Argentine border—only gets bogged down by the increasingly tedious speculation about Peluchonneau’s status as a fictional construct. After a while, it’s hard to shake the impression that Neruda might’ve been better served as the very type of movie that Larraín seems so strenuously opposed to making: a conventional historical narrative.