Neruda (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): An unconventional biopic inspired by Pablo Neruda

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“Neruda” is not a conventional biopic at all. While mainly focusing on one crucial point in Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s life, the movie freely mixes fact and fiction for giving us a wider view on not only the poet himself but also how art, politics, and life can be overlapped and influence each other. I must admit that I am not so sure about whether I absorbed and understood everything presented in the movie, and I also have some doubt on whether its last act works as well as intended, but this is still an admirable biopic with interesting aspects to notice and talk about.

The first act of the movie shows and tells us how Neruda, played by Luis Gnecco, became a wanted man in his country in 1948. Not long after being elected in 1946, President Gabriel González Videla changed his political position to anti-communism, and that certainly infuriated many left-wing politicians including Neruda, who in fact supported President Videla during his presidential election campaign. As shown during the opening scene, he is very outspoken about his opposition to President Videla and other right-wing politicians, and he soon gets himself impeached after he openly criticizes President Videla in the National Congress. This is promptly followed by a warrant of arrest for Neruda, and he has no choice but to go underground along with his Argentine wife Delia (Mercedes Morán).

The progress of Neruda’s plight is accompanied with the words from a cynical narrator who apparently dislikes everything Neruda stands for, and that creates an interesting narrative tension especially when the narrator sarcastically points out many contradictions in Neruda’s life. As an elite leftist quite comfortable with his bourgeois sides, Neruda certainly prefers having little bits of freedom in his hiding places to letting himself incarcerated for his political belief, and he surely lives better than many poor people in his country even though the situation has become far less luxurious for him than before.

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We soon meet the narrator in question, and we come to learn a bit about this fictional character as he begins his pursuit of Neruda. He is a detective named Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), and he believes that he is an illegitimate son of a legendary police chief although his prostitute mother never told him who his father really was. For him, Neruda is a big opportunity to boost his social status, and he is ready to follow any trace which may lead him to Neruda.

However, he only finds himself always one or two steps behind his target. At one point, he almost catches Neruda at a bordello, but Neruda manages to evade Oscar and other policemen in a rather clever way coupled with some luck, and he continues to move from one place to another no matter how close Oscar is to arresting him.

And it looks like Neruda is well aware of his pursuer, because he frequently leaves behind pulpy detective novels for him. The movie has a wry self-conscious fun with establishing old-fashioned noir atmosphere around Oscar; his sulky narration is in fact as amusingly dry as your average hardboiled fiction, and we notice the tacky rear projection in the background whenever the characters in the movie are driving vehicles. The cinematographer Sergio Armstrong did a good job of evoking the texture of film noir through the striking use of shadows and lights during several scenes, and the score by Federico Jusid is effectively mixed with the classical works by Edvard Grieg, Charles Ives, and Krzysztof Penderecki to generate the moody ambience around the characters in the film.

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When Oscar meets Delia not long after she is separated from Neruda, the screenplay by the director Pablo Larraín and his co-writer Guillermo Calderón goes further with its interplay between fact and fiction, and the line between fact and fiction is blurred more than before as everything eventually culminates to the climatic sequence involved with Neruda’s escape attempt via a snowy path in the Andes Mountains. I still feel confused to some degrees about what Larraín tries to achieve here, but I can say at least that this sequence feels somehow profound when his two opposing characters’ paths finally converge on a certain point together.

The main performers are engaging to watch in each own way. Luis Gnecco initially looks plain but steadily holds the center even when he is not on the screen, and I appreciate how willingly he and the movie present Neruda’s flawed human aspects without any excuse. While he is indeed one of the greatest poets during the 20th century, Neruda in the movie is shown as a vain, egoistic womanizer who is far different from a gentler and kinder fictional version of Neruda in “Il Postino” (1994), and there is a small amusing scene which makes a little fun of his bald, overweight appearance, which is somehow compensated by his charm and poetry enough to draw many different women. On the opposite, Gael García Bernal, who previously collaborated with Larraín in “No” (2012), is suitably glum and brooding, and Mercedes Morán holds her place well between her two co-stars as a woman who has to put up with many things as standing by a man she loves.

Like Larraín’s recent other film “Jackie” (2016), “Neruda”, which was the official submission of Chile for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in last year, is a fascinating biopic told via unconventional approach, and I admire that even though it is a little too sprawling at times. I felt impatient during my viewing, but I enjoyed its mood and performance while reflecting on its cerebral themes later, so I recommend it to you with some reservation.

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