Half a year before the release of his Natalie Portman-starrer “Jackie,” director Pablo Larraín unveiled another one of his productions at the historic Cannes Film Festival. This film lacks a more easily recognizable star power in a majority of its roles. It’s set in Larraín’s native Chile and, consequently, the dialogue is spoken in the native tongue. Even with its biographical foundation, it consistently strays into fantastical territories. In every aspect, the director’s earlier film should be the antithesis of the “bleeding heart” sentimentality that “Jackie” seems to espouse. What’s more patriotic than a stark look at the mourning of a nation’s leader? Politically savvy as ever, Larraín answers this with his imaginative love letter to Chile’s past in “Neruda.”
Following Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) after the passing of Chile’s Permanent Defense of Democrac Law in 1948, the film depicts Neruda’s underground movement to flee the country while being tracked by a dogged governmental agent, Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal). The law prohibited Communism, which, given his role as a notorious Communist senator, made Neruda public enemy No. 1. While the narrative positions itself as a bleak thriller, Larraín excels in lining the film’s tone with Neruda’s incredulity. The character’s own nonchalance reverberates through the film, creating an unsuspecting, darkly comic adventure.
Gnecco humanizes such a prolific historical figure through whimsy and overconfidence. Neruda’s journey has weight, but he never struggles to shoulder the burden of his name because, simply put, he loves himself. With each piece of dialogue, each revelation of a new hardship which Neruda must overcome, Gnecco casually plays off misfortune with an assuredness only a hopeless romantic could conjure up. That is to say, he seamlessly inhabits the role of Neruda — poet, lover and unifying figure extraordinaire.
Larraín, however, doesn’t let his own admiration of the poet’s political beliefs and works get in the way of a more holistic portrayal. As time passes, Neruda continually demonstrates his own over-inflated ego and an earnest want to be a spectacle. That which fulfills him comes off as immature and selfish to the outside perspective. It’s this critical point of view that pushes Larraín’s characterization of Neruda into representational greatness. Neruda is a good man, but that doesn’t make up for his inherent flaws, and the film makes sure to never get ensnared or narratively stagnant in his charm.
Neruda’s effect on his pursuer, Bernal’s Óscar Peluchonneau, goes on to emphasize the former’s growing disillusionment with himself. While Peluchonneau inches closer to finding his target, he becomes entranced with the life Neruda has made for himself. His constant philosophical ponderings make up the narration for the film, and Bernal’s listless thoughts expertly display the detective’s begrudging respect for his “criminal.” The duo’s constant evasion of one another feels like a dance, and Larraín captures the rhythm of their chase through a concurrent theme of self-reflection from both partners. That which Neruda begins to accept as fault Peluchonneau sees as strength, and because of this symbiotic relationship, Larraín — in essence — gets to have his cake and eat it too. He crafts a comprehensive characterization of Pablo Neruda yet, vicariously through Peluchonneau, admonishes the poet’s creativity indirectly. Neruda and Peluchonneau feed into one another, merit each other’s worth, and that’s where the film’s shortcoming is revealed.
“Neruda” remains a deeply personal film to Larraín, and all personal films are divisive in some regard. The emotional crux of the plot predicates on the connection between Neruda and Peluchonneau, but it’s jarring to discover that the filmmakers took some liberties with the latter. The audience is able to deconstruct the poet because of the detective’s outlook toward him, but the film, in its final minutes, strips away that which Peluchonneau learns, rendering Neruda’s nuance as moot. To so fervently imbue believability into a relationship between two people and then de-power it in those last moments feels rushed and unnecessary. Though frustrating to consider the ultimate impact Neruda’s character and words truly have, the semi-biographical nature of the film doesn’t impede it from achieving greatness. It heralds larger-than-life figures but does not hesitate to question them — a patriotic sentiment that is especially poignant as 2017 begins.