Pablo Larrain, director
Guillermo Calderon, script
Starring: Luis Gnecco (Pablo Neruda), Gael Garcia Bernal (Oscar), Alfredo Castro (Gabriel Gonzalez Videla), Mercedes Moran (Delia), Diego Munoz (Martinez), Pablo Derqui (Victor ), Michael Silva (Alvaro Jara)
It’s been a whole week since I reviewed a Pablo Larrain film and I must admit, I missed him. The gifted Chilean’s most recent film Jackie opened last weekend to rave reviews and over $1 million dollars at the box office in a deliberately slow Christmas roll-out, which will steadily increase over the next few weeks as we enter the Oscar season. Natalie Portman’s nomination (go ahead, bet against me!) as Jackie Kennedy will help to make Larrain’s first English language film a hit.
Neruda, the film Larrain made just prior to Jackie, is Chile’s entry into the Academy Awards. Regular listeners of Classical 96.3FM, please don’t laugh: it could easily win for best foreign language film. My Oscar track record in picking winners, abysmal in major categories, is actually quite good for foreign language films and documentaries. Not sexy categories but vastly important if you love cinema.
Neruda is an historical film set in Chile in 1948. It mixes genres, magical realist style, incorporating real characters and fictional ones into an investigation of radicalism, hedonism and right-wing brutality into a remarkable work. Pablo Larrain has created a police procedural drama in which an artist is chased across his country by a devilishly handsome and thoroughly obsessed detective.
Pablo Neruda, the titular character in this drama, is very real. He is arguably the greatest poet ever in Latin America. Neruda won the Nobel Prize in 1971 and enjoyed worldwide fame despite his fierce embrace of Communism, which probably caused his mysterious death mere weeks after his friend Salvador Allende’s radical regime was overthrown by U.S. backed right-wing military forces in September, 1973.
Larrain’s film takes place decades earlier but also involves politics. In the mid-‘40s, Neruda was elected as a Communist senator but, unfortunately for him and other radicals, a very right wing government under Gabriel Gonzalez Videla won the election. Neruda’s highly vocal opposition to the government led to the banning of the Communist party and a call for the poet/politician’s arrest.
It is here that Larrain moves from period recreation into drama. The terrific actor Gael Garcia Bernal plays Oscar Peluchonneau, a fictional detective who pursues Neruda from Valparaiso to the mountains where the poet eventually escapes on horseback to Argentina. Oscar is a mesmerizing figure, who tries to understand Neruda in order to capture him. Along the way, the detective becomes a sympathetic character, who gradually begins to understand that the regime he’s supporting may be wrong.
Larrain has termed Neruda an “anti-biopic” for good reason. Perhaps because his motives are clear, Bernal’s Oscar subtly takes over the film. Luis Gnecco, who put on 50 lbs to more closely resemble Neruda, is wonderful as well but his character turns out to be a good deal more problematic than expected. To be blunt, Neruda in real life and in Larrain’s film was a “champagne socialist” who loved wine, women and song. Though he espoused the rights of the workers, Neruda led a life of ease—except when he was pursued by the police. There are scenes of decadence throughout Neruda and there’s no doubt that the poet did enjoy a life worthy of Dionysius. But he also wrote the “Canto General” and many other brilliant poems that movingly depict the land, the history, the politics and the people of Latin America with an epic sweep and humanistic intent.
With Jackie and Neruda, Larrain has made films about two of the most compelling figures of the 20th century. Each embodied contradictions and was more complex than the legends that have been spun about them. In these companion pieces, Pablo Larrain has sought to present two icons as real people, filled with doubts, certitudes and needs. They’re well worth seeing—and may win Oscars. You can never tell.