Review published on April 6, 2017.
If you are looking for a straightforward biopic of celebrated Chilean poet-diplomat Pablo Neruda, Neruda isn’t it. Playful and creative, director Pablo Larraín (also Chilean, of course – what other nationality could be trusted to evoke the Latin American spirit Neruda embodied and for which he was adored) takes the essence of the man and Nobel Prize-winning poet and politician who captivated his country men and women and presents a highly stylised and not entirely fact-based chapter in his life.
It’s 1948 and the Cold War has reached Chile. In congress, Senator Pablo Neruda accuses the government of betraying the Communist Party and is swiftly impeached by President González Videla. Police Prefect Peluchonneau is assigned to arrest the poet.
Neruda tries to flee the country with his wife, the painter Delia del Carril, but they are forced into hiding. Inspired by the dramatic events of his new life as a fugitive, Neruda writes his epic collection of poems, Canto General. Meanwhile, in Europe, the legend of the poet hounded by the policeman grows, and artists led by Pablo Picasso clamour for Neruda’s freedom.
Neruda, however, sees the struggle with his nemesis Peluchonneau as an opportunity to reinvent himself. He plays with the inspector, leaving clues designed to make their game of cat and mouse more dangerous, more intimate. In this story of a persecuted poet and his implacable adversary, Neruda recognises his own heroic possibilities: a chance to become both a symbol for liberty and a literary legend.
The success of this film for me lies mainly in the casting of the three key characters – Neruda, magnificently and comically played by Luis Gnecco, his devoted and politically astute wife Delia intelligently played by Mercedes Morán and Peluchonneau, the boyish police inspector who battles his determination to capture the poet with his increasing fascination for him, played with by Gael García Bernal. Distinct from each other in terms of personality, they become intrinsically linked as Delia and Peluchonneau orbit the brilliant but monstrous Neruda.
As Neruda’s ego threatens to alienate the people closest to him behind closed doors he becomes ever-more obsessed with his image. Unable to resist slipping out unaccompanied he revels in, and indeed appears to require, the uncomplicated adoration of his fans, which seems incomprehensible most of the time. Typically misogynistic, he ignores the creative brilliance and needs of his wife and the practical challenges of their confinement and instead makes a game of the dangerous situation they find themselves in, taunting and provoking Peluchonneau.
Frequently funny, Neruda moves quickly, showcasing Larraín’s skill in combining farcical elements while always keeping the focus on character and reaction, rather than plot. The ‘catch me if you can’ element of the story is at once ridiculous and unlikely but nevertheless highly compelling as you wait for the inevitable denouement in this almost surreal faux-narrative. It is not overtly political enough to be taken too seriously but for Larraín that is not the point – “Neruda liked crime stories…we created a novel that we would have liked Neruda to read.”
The most amusing, and revealing, moment for me was between Neruda and Delia as the strain is beginning to tell on their relationship. Neruda is reading out some of his poetry, in his normal voice, but something isn’t quite right, the words are meaningless and devoid of passion. Delia essentially tells him to perform the words, which he obediently does, and suddenly the gravitas and flair of the great Neruda is apparent. He becomes a literary giant again, rather than the shuffling, overweight middle-aged man he otherwise is. It reveals his shortcomings and her sagacity and turns their relationship on its head. I applaud Larraín for exposing the man behind the legend and not succumbing to the blind idolatry that characterised Neruda’s popular success in his lifetime.
I think this film could lead to some fascinating reading group discussions about the perception of literary personalities and the opposition between public and private selves, alongside reading a selection of Neruda’s poetry – I was inspired to buy a copy of the Vintage Classics ‘Selected Poems’ and highly recommend this as a perfect single volume exploration.
Mel Mitchell, 4*
NERUDA is in UK cinemas 7 April