Director: Pablo Larrain
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Luis Gnecco, Alfredo Castro, Pablo Derqui, Mercedes Morán
Watch Neruda online in the UK: iTunes / Amazon Instant Video / Curzon Home Cinema
Chilean director Pablo Larrain is clearly on something of an unconventional biopic kick at the moment, as this enjoyable portrait of politician-poet Pablo Neruda comes hot on the heels of Jackie, his similarly unorthodox look at the life of Jackie Kennedy, following the assassination of JFK.
The film begins in 1948, when Neruda (Luis Gnecco), a Senator in the Chilean Communist Party, suddenly finds himself targeted by President Gabriel Gonzalez Videla (a cameo by Larrain regular Alfredo Castro), who has betrayed his leftist roots and dedicated himself to fighting communism. Forced to go into hiding with his aristocratic Argentinian wife, Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), and his Party-assigned minder, Álvaro Jara (Michael Silva), Neruda is taken in by various Communist Party members, as he’s pursued across the country by dogged police inspector Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal).
The film begins as an involving game of cat-and-mouse, as Neruda eludes Peluchonneau in a variety of amusing ways (including dressing up as an overweight prostitute and, in a delightful throwaway gag, posing as his own photographic portait). However, as the story continues, it becomes clear that there’s a strongly fictional element to Bernal’s detective (who also narrates the film), with the character even questioning at one point whether Neruda has created him.
This subtle blend of fact and fiction is part and parcel of Larrain and screenwriter Guillermo Calderón’s playful approach to the material, which shifts in and out of various genres, including chase thriller, film noir, road movie and even western. The film is beautifully shot by Sergio Armstrong, who accentuates the different genre trappings with striking cinematography, whether it’s the shadowy detective sequences or the stunning landscapes in the western section towards the end. There’s also a gorgeous score from composer Federico Jusid that gives the film a decidedly Hitchcockian atmosphere, which fits the theme of pursuit, and its surrounding edges of black comedy.
The film’s theatrical element is heightened by the clever use of back projection in the pursuit scenes, but there’s also a strong thematic core to the idea, in that both men are seeking to be the heroes in their own stories (Peluchonneau worries constantly that he’s just a secondary character) and are shaping the public perception of their characters accordingly. That idea of perception recurs again in the service of a political point, when a drunken Communist Party member points out that it’s not really in President Videla’s interest to capture and try Neruda, only to keep him in exile and present the appearance of pursuing him. (Small wonder that Peluchonneau has something of an existential crisis, in those circumstances – indeed, he has only really been ordered to humiliate Neruda, not catch him per se.)
Gnecco and Bernal are both terrific in the lead roles and their relationship is complex and fascinating, even though they share minimal screen time. Mercedes Morán is wonderful as Neruda’s extremely patient wife – she has a natural, warm presence that’s utterly charming, which Larrain deploys to winning effect.
The result is another Larrain biopic that bucks the standard conventions, but Neruda takes an entirely different approach to Jackie, creating a gorgeously seductive piece of cinema.