This is a repost of our November 13th review of Neruda from AFI Fest.
The Cold War messed up the way Americans view history when it comes to communism and socialism in the 20th Century. It’s led many to not realize that the communists were among the first to take on the fascist scourge that plagued Europe in the years before World War II. In the wake of the war, communists and socialists were conflated with the Soviet Union and subject to various witch hunts to root out what many nations saw as the communist threat. In America, this is most famously known as McCarthyism, and the Hollywood Blacklist that followed the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee. In Chile, communism was outlawed in 1948 and the famed poet and Chilean senator Pablo Neruda became a fugitive in his homeland. That fraught time in Neruda’s life is the subject of the film from Chilean director Pablo Larraín, Neruda, which eschews standard biopic format for a much more lyrical and ponderous examination of an idealistic artist on the lam and the relentless lawman on his trail.
Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is part of the Chilean bourgeois, an acclaimed author and member of the Chilean senate that throws lavish parties at his home with his wife Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán). As part of the nation’s communist party, Neruda is public figure for his literary work as well as his political actions. That makes Neruda a target for President Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro). A warrant is issued for Neruda’s arrest as the Chilean police are rounding up members of the communist party in their own form of concentration camps, a purge of political rivals underway with the camp being run by future Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. With his prominence and resources, Neruda is able to elude the authorities which prompts President Videla to task eager police officer Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) with apprehending the poet and politician. What ensues is a game of cat and mouse, with the hedonistic poet going stir crazy in hiding and the dapper policeman seemingly always a step behind.
There’s a fascinating cinematic style employed in Neruda, one that sees scenes of dialogue fragmented in a way that suggests that these conversations we’re being shown take place over a longer span of time than presented while retaining their overall integrity and coherence. The wide angled cinematography of Sergio Armstrong is atmospheric depending on its location, with the film’s action ranging from tight spaces within cramped apartments to expansive government palaces to the film’s climax in the frozen wilderness at the foot of the Andes Mountains. Combined with the lush production design and the dapper wardrobe of its characters, Neruda has plenty that pleases the eye.
The screenplay by Guillermo Calderón has Óscar Peluchonneau as the narrator before the character is introduced properly, though it’s easy to surmise that the narration is coming from someone with an antipathy towards communist beliefs. It allows the film to still highlight the hypocrisy between Neruda’s lavish lifestyle and his political leanings yet never gives this disparity too much credence (as it shouldn’t, given that great political minds can be extremely hypocritical; see: Thomas Jefferson) due to the perspective of the narrator’s critique. As we approach the end of the film, the relationship between Neruda and Peluchonneau becomes increasingly existential, bringing into question the very nature of their cat and mouse relationship. Whether in the form of its construction or the manner with which it approaches its themes, Neruda turns its back on the conventional biopic structure to great effect.
As the Chilean selection for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, it’s possible that Pablo Larraín may have two films in Oscar contention in different categories (the other being the upcoming film Jackie). Neruda plays out like a poem. It doesn’t always rhyme as Pablo Larraín is much more interested in playing with structure and meter, sometimes losing tempo. In the end, Neruda takes shape as something that is interested in thing much more than the surface elements of politics and biography. It’s much more interested in examining the meaning self, how system of belief shape our existence regardless whether or not we conform. I’ll take that over a generic biopic anyday.
A wildly stylistic piece of cinema, director Pablo Larraín’s Neruda eschews the traditional biopic format for a poetic examination of the political persecution of Pablo Neruda in the late ’40s.