Late last year, Chilean director Pablo Larraín released his first English-language film, Jackie, which was nominated for three Oscars. It is a disorienting, non-linear film that dwells in the darkest areas of grief and human alienation, descriptors that also match his earlier work, the terror-inflected Tony Manero and Post Mortem. He took a break on the lighter side with the effusive No, and now he has reached a sort of middle ground with Neruda, a film that is stylistically similar to Jackie but far odder in tone and content than one would expect from a historical drama. Neruda captures more the feeling of its true story rather than any tangible fact; Larraín seems resolutely uninterested in the straight version of this particularly turbulent part of a very famous poet’s life.
World War II is freshly over, and Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is at the height of his popularity in Chile. He has roused the working people of his nation with his beautiful love poetry and by serving as a senator for the Communist Party, a position that suits him well until the President (Larraín veteran Alfredo Castro) outlaws that very ideology in his country. Never a man to deny himself much of anything, Neruda refuses to back down and instead goes into hiding from the Chilean government, along with his wife, Delia (Mercedes Morán). The President issues a warrant for Neruda’s arrest, so a police detective named Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) begins a dogged chase after the poet throughout Chile, always one step behind both literally and mentally.
This sounds like straightforward story, but Larraín’s approach is anything but. The film is bolstered primarily by the wonderfully befuddling editing by Hervé Schneid, known for his work with French fabulist, Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Characters will conduct ongoing conversations with one another, changing locations frequently—sometimes in the middle of a sentence—but never missing a bit in their dialogue. This, coupled with Bernal’s hilariously bone-dry narration, give the film an almost Brechtian self-consciousness, never going so far as to break the fourth wall, but constantly re-upping on the artifice of the film’s construction. Peluchonneau, who I’m not even sure was an actual person in real life, is a delightful creation in and of himself, thanks to Bernal’s performance and Guillermo Calderón’s witty screenplay. Bernal sports an Errol Flynn mustache and and equally jaunty hat, but he never fails to embarrass himself in his relentless pursuit, as if Leslie Nielsen‘s Frank Drebin were reincarnated in 1940s South America. Peluchonneau believes himself to be an expert inspector, which inevitably proves to be a fallacy the next time he makes a move.
It feels at times that Peluchonneau is in a completely different movie from the other characters, who all seem gravely aware of the encroaching fascism that was purged in Europe but is gaining traction in Chile. Larraín claims his films Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No form a “Pinochet trilogy”, named after the ruthless dictator who came to power in the early 1970s (a young Pinochet has an unflattering cameo in Neruda), so you can look at this film as a prelude to the horror that was to come. Neruda himself seems, to quote Jean Renoir, to be dancing on a volcano, ironically reaping the material benefits of being a widely loved figure in Communism even as he preaches about the injustice done against the working class. He is a man who finds little issue with sneaking out of his various hideaways to visit a brothel in the middle of the night, even as his wife sticks by his side, every bit and more his intellectual equal. Despite Neruda’s legendary status among Chileans (he’s also a Nobel Prize-winner), Neruda comes off as a bit of a personal rebuke against the poet, showing him with all the warts one never learns about in history class.
More than anything, you come away from Neruda with a sense of imbalance, knowing you just witnessed an incredibly unorthodox approach to a subject that, in the hands of a less interesting filmmaker, would suffer from biopic sickness. Larraín provides us instead with an intimate look at a beloved national idol at a time of great upheaval that refuses to psychologize its subject, but rather to situate him in a game of cat-and-mouse where the odds heavily favor the mouse (mostly because the cat’s a little dumb). It is everything you do not expect a movie like this to be, the sort that would get a nice C- for a CinemaScore if the company bothered to engage audiences about it. A movie I loved got that score: Hail Caesar! (a film by the Coen brothers). Neruda feels like a tonal cousin to the work of those filmmakers. Maybe a failing grade isn’t such a bad thing.
Historical Drama | The Orchard