Pablo Larrain’s film on Chilean poet-politician Pablo Neruda is no more a conventional biographical portrait than his recent “Jackie” was of Mrs. John Kennedy. But “Neruda,” while no less cinematically imaginative than the earlier picture, is the more successful of the two. It isn’t that Luis Gnecco makes a more convincing Neruda than Natalie Portman did a Jackie Kennedy; both are, in fact, very fine. It’s that Larrain and writer Guillermo Calderon have found a way to fashion a portrait of Neruda that, while highly speculative and inventive, reflects its subject and his work stylistically in a way the “Jackie” struggled to achieve but failed to accomplish.
The script by Guillermo Calderon focuses exclusively on the late forties, when Neruda was already a national icon for his popular poetry. He was also, however, an important figure in the Chilean Communist Party and a member of the Chilean Senate. Then-president Gabriel Gonzalez Videla (played by Alfredo Castro), of the Radical Party, had been elected with Communist support, but in 1948 he expelled Communist ministers from his cabinet and then banned communists entirely, forcing the party leadership—including Neruda—into hiding, and ultimately convincing many of them to flee the country.
It’s this episode in Neruda’s life that’s the subject of Larrain’s film, and a substantial portion of the running-time is devoted to the poet-politician’s peregrinations to various supposed safe houses, accompanied by his wife Delia (Mercedes Moran, a magisterial presence) until he must finally leave her behind to cross the Andes on horseback to Argentina. But the journey is hardly presented in typical heroic mode. Neruda is depicted as a vain man conscious of his own legendary status as he haggles with party functionaries and interacts histrionically with rank-and-file communists, who on occasion suggest that his exalted position distances him from their problems and concerns although—as a remarkable scene involving the testimony of a drag queen who has had a brief meeting with the poet proves—he can nonetheless be enormously inspiring to them. There’s also no doubt about his large appetites, not only for recognition but for food and female companionship.
Neruda, however, is but one of the two main figures in the tale that Larrain and Calderon have concocted. The other is Oscar Peluchonneau (dapper Gael Garcia Bernal, exuding unflappability), the fictional police inspector appointed by Videla to track the fugitive down. On the one hand, Oscar is presented as a typically dogged noir gumshoe, but he’s also a combination of self-conscious elegance (especially in terms of his fastidiousness in dress) and desperate striving (he describes himself as the son of a famously successful detective, but by a prostitute). Oscar narrates the picture, constantly offering biting remarks about his quarry and his comrades but at the same time proving singularly inept at his job despite an air of smug certitude.
As the gentlemanly chase continues, moreover, Peluchonneau becomes a literary device of a different order: he expresses the fear that he might be no more than a creation of Neruda himself, destined to play the role of a subordinate figure in the poet’s story, and by the time that the two finally meet in the snow-covered mountains—a rendezvous that Neruda will look back upon afterward with the Olympian gaze of the creative artist—the film playfully suggests that’s exactly what we’re been witnessing. A supposed biography has become a flamboyant portrait of a man who constructed his own mythic persona, told with the same sort of artifice that he employed in doing so.
That’s reflected in the sumptuous look of “Neruda,” in which the gauzily lush widescreen cinematography of Sergio Armstrong captures every detail in Estefania Larrain’s production design, Mario Ricci’s art direction and Muriel Parra’s costumes. Federico Jusid complements the eye-catching visuals with a score that incorporates classical themes, particularly a motif from Grieg’s music for Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt”—not accidentally another travel tale that blends realism and fantasy in a mixture some found disconcerting in its day.
Though anyone who goes to “Neruda” expecting a full biographical dramatization will certainly be disappointed, the more adventurous will find it an engrossing blend of poet and filmmaker, of history and art, done up in florid period style.