Director: Pablo Larraín
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Luis Gnecco, Mercedes Morán, Alfredo Castro
UK Distributor: Network Releasing
Genre: Biography | Crime | Drama • Year: 2016 • Country: Chile | Argentina | France | Spain • Running Time: 107 minutes • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 • Image: Colour • Language: Spanish • Rating: 15
Selected as the Chilean entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Academy Awards, Pablo Larraín continues his superb run of form with the complex and beguiling ‘anti-bio’, Neruda, a magnificent, lyrical character study of the eponymous Chilean poet-diplomat, and one that constantly challenges the standard biopic conventions with its unique, magic-realist approach.
In a speech at the National Congress of Chile in 1948, the celebrated poet and Communist Senator, Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco), openly condemns the brutal anti-communist administration of new pro-American President Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro), despite having played a key role in his ultimate election. Now threatened with arrest, Neruda decides to flee and go underground, accompanied by his Argentinian wife, Delia (Mercedes Morán), though he soon finds himself pursued by the relentless Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal),a young detective increasingly determined to bring his fugitive to justice and put an end to Neruda’s numerous public taunts.
As the film’s philosophical narrator, Peluchonneau is heard long before he is seen, chronicling the tale in memoir form as his older self, though in contrast to the eloquent, deep-thinking intellectual his voice suggests, his appearance is something far more akin to a bourgeois, Sam Spade parody. Generally the shortest man in the room, Bernal’s detective – complete with the essential private eye moustache – is an awkward and amusing caricature. Think Clouseau transported to South America, though without the charisma. He sits alone and reads through Neruda’s works for inspiration, but in doing so he unwittingly becomes a metaphoric blank canvas; the template for a new novel, waiting to be filled.
Playful, wildly inventive and unusually dreamlike, Neruda is simultaneously a hard-boiled detective story, a bewildering adventure tale and thrilling cat-and-mouse chase, but not as we know them. As the epic ‘wild hunt’ (as Neruda declares it) begins to unfold, Larraín brilliantly blurs the lines of reality and fiction as he impishly teases and toys with the themes of identity, fragmented reality, narrative (scenes and dialogues often continue through multiple locations without cutting) and theatrical invention, all the while blending a comedic lightness of touch with the serious realities of a ruthless political regime.
It is a pulp fiction novel constructed in front of our very eyes, with Neruda himself leading the cast of characters through the various twists and turns. Larraín uses the Chilean landscape as the backdrop for Neruda’s pictorial maze of puzzles, though it soon becomes a labyrinth where the identities of both cat and mouse inevitably intertwine. In the eyes of the law, Peluchonneau is very much in charge, but in the context of the film he is by no means in control.
Larraín’s regular collaborator Sergio Armstrong adds a rich, luscious texture with his creamy, other-worldy cinematography, using natural light, saturation, unusual camera angles, back projections and lens glare to further enhance the ethereal tone.
Played alongside Larraín’s other widely-acclaimed 2016 feature, Jackie, it makes for a fascinating double-bill. Both films concern themselves with national, cultural icons, though to categorise them as mere biopics or historic tales would be unfairly misrepresentative of what they both ultimately achieve. It is Larraín’s unique, abstract approach that ultimately elevates them to the next level.
NERUDA is in UK cinemas 7 April