Pablo Larraín’s fictional biopic of Chile’s greatest poet creates a magical realist cat-and-mouse story that Neruda himself would have enjoyed.
Poetic Licenceby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It’s 1948 and Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is a towering figure in Chile – not only an outspoken communist party senator but also Chile’s greatest, best-loved poet, whose exuberant sensuality spills over into all areas of his life. But when he accuses the government of betrayal, he’s swiftly impeached by the president and forced to go on the run to avoid arrest. Police detective Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) is assigned to track him down.
Neruda and his wife, the painter Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), are wealthy champagne communists and bohemians. Though earthy Neruda thrives on going underground and enjoys the thrill of the chase, his wife finds it hard. A lover of crime fiction, Neruda knowingly plays a cat-and-mouse game with his pursuer. Though nominally in hiding, he still flagrantly appears in public, in one instance having to quickly disguise himself in drag when police looking for him raid a brothel where he is interrupted enjoying the act of a transvestite singer.
The story is flits between the perspectives of both Neruda and Peluchonneau. Neruda is a mass of paradoxes. He’s a sensitive genius with a courageous social conscience and a magnetic, larger-than-life personality, yet he also has a grandiose sense of self-importance and is at the mercy of his unbridled sexual appetites. In contrast, Peluchonneau has a chip on his shoulder from being the son of a prostitute, a sense of resentment at his lack of promotion and a bitter determination to complete his task. It becomes a road movie with a criminal investigation. On the run – when, incidentally, he wrote his greatest work Canto General – trying to reach safety in Argentina across the Andes, Neruda revels in taking bigger and bigger risks, whilst underestimating the dangers of fascism, hinted at by the presence of concentration camps controlled by a certain General Pinochet. Through a mixture of tragedy and farce, Guillermo Calderón’s mischievous screenplay reveals that Neruda’s nemesis Peluchonneau is a figment of his imagination, an essential partner in a battle of wills in his magical realist pursuit of his creator.
Beautifully shot, ranging from the interior of brothels, to the streets of Santiago and the snowy heights of the Andes, Neruda is a satirical take on the legend of a great man, warts, fantasies and all. It’s imaginative, playful and it’s a false biopic. Pablo Larraín has rewound to the time that was the forerunner of the Chile of his No. Like his last year’s Jackie, with its starring role for Natalie Portman, Neruda is also about the creation of a legend.
Neruda premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is released on 7 April 2017 in the UK.