FILM REVIEW: NERUDA (2016) DIR. PABLO LARRAÍN
By Belle McIntyre
This will have to rank as one of the most delightful and fascinating films I have seen in quite some time. It will be enlightening to those who are unfamiliar with the life and times of the great Chilean poet, Nobel laureate, and politician. At the same time it could be confounding to the cognoscenti as well as the uninitiated. That would be on account of the fact that it is, in the words of the screenwriter, Guillermo Calderón and director Pablo Larraín, Nerudian, which is to say that it is not a bio-pic. Rather, it is an existential portrait of the man seen through the prism of his poetry and his politics rather than the reality of his life. To be precise, it is a fictionalized, or maybe fantasized, portrayal of the man at a significant moment in his life.
The setting is Chile in 1948 when the President Gabriel Gonzalez Videla (Alfredo Castro) has decided to publicly oppose Communism. This prompts him to denounce senator Neruda as a traitor for his outspoken support of Communism. Neruda and his wife Delia (Mercedes Morân) reluctantly are forced to leave the city and lay low. This is a huge hardship on the two of them as they both love their creature comforts and the high life, and particularly for Neruda who really loves the limelight.
Apparently Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is an arrogant narcissist, full of self-importance and thoroughly in the thrall of his international fame and the adoration of his countrymen. His motivations are somewhat complicated as they are based on the preservation of his reputation as an artist of the people as well as an iconic political figure and the two are decidedly at odds. His communist stance is somewhat out of sync with his hedonistic lifestyle. Some called him a champagne Communist. He loved wine, women and food and lived in beautiful homes. However, it is a major aspect of his identity and he has embraced it fully. He is determined to protect and enhance his status in the popular imagination. To that end, he goes to extreme lengths to dramatize his exile and pursuit by upping the anti and by goading his pursuer. He sends messages out to the people and writes agitated pieces to inflame his defenders and enrage his detractors. His goal is nothing less than a legacy as a populist hero.
The creative artifice of the film makers is the character of Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), a vainglorious police inspector hired to track down and bring down the much loved poet of the people and enemy of the state. Peluchonneau is a wonderfully absurd character, full of swagger and misplaced self-confidence, and convinced that this assignment will make his career and catapult him into significance. There are many references to film noir detectives and spaghetti western tough guys. He is the least likely righteous avenger.
These two distinct points of view are exceedingly, artfully drawn. We are inside the head of Peluchonneau, who is self-created and attempting to mythologize himself and his mission. As the much cagier Neruda teases and leaves false clues for the detective and repeatedly outsmarts and manipulates him Peluchonneau begins to lose his grip on reality and starts to wonder if he is actually a creation of Neruda’s imagination. As the hunt goes on it becomes more surreal as locations change without explanation and the hunted seems to become the hunter. The sly shifts and twists are exhilarating and audacious.
The secondary characters are wonderfully motley, odd and eccentric as are the interiors which are elaborately detailed and thoroughly conceived. The production design is richly colored and stunningly filmed with a score that enhances and enlivens a well-paced and fascinating piece of conceptual film-making. It is a subversive and richly delicious treat.
© Belle McIntyre