Director Pablo Larraín ('No', 'The Club') is currently a hot commodity following the multiple Oscar nominations for 'Jackie' (2016), his Natalie Portman-starring biographical film about Jackie Kennedy. So I was eager to see whether lightning would strike twice with Larraín's next biographical film, 'Neruda'. Rather than a conventional biography, it turns out to be an imagined account of a famous poet's life. A lot of philosophical musings and florid dialogue occurs. Tedium ensues. The yearning for a strong cup of coffee grows from a rumble into a roar and the temptation to check your watch grows ever stronger until...
You get the idea.
'Neruda' is about the hunt for Chilean poet, Communist activist and Senator Pablo Neruda in 1948. In the film's flamboyant opening in a spacious Senate chamber which doubles as a men's bathroom, we see Neruda (Luis Gnecco) in an argument with another Chilean Senator after Neruda has allegedly insulted Chilean President Gabriele Gonzalez. Referred to as "Emperor Caligula," he is told that "Communists hate to work. They'd rather burn churches. It makes them feel alive," while Neruda defiantly fends off attacks. It isn't long before word reaches Neruda that he is about to be impeached, and he has no choice but to hide and consider exile. President Gonzalez appoints a special prosecutor, Oscar Peluchonneau, "to catch Neruda and to humiliate him".
The film is narrated by a disembodied voice that we later learn is that of a fictional moustachioed police detective Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal, 'No', 'The Motorcycle Diaries', 'Bad Education'), the son of a prostitute, ordered by his superiors to apprehend Neruda. As the poet moves around with the assistance of Communist friends, he leaves behind pulp detective novels for Oscar to find, a mocking trail of clues that somehow forge an unspoken bond between the hunter and the hunted.
Neruda and his artist wife Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán) become fugitives in their own country, and most of the film has them negotiating the Chilean underground. Set three years after the end of WWII, a game of cat and mouse between hunter and hunted evolves.
Director Larraín and writer Guillermo Calderón (who also wrote 'The Club') employ a generously creative license, and play quite fast and loose with facts resulting in a rambling, complex quasi-detective story. It has walk-ons by Augusto Pinochet and Pablo Picasso, contains narration with poetic citations ("a river of buried tigers"), a vigorous orgy and runs to Edvard Grieg grinding away on the track.
At times, the film attempts to be a troubling inquiry into the personality of this esteemed poet-intellectual-communist. He is an admired spokesperson for the workers and the downtrodden, but he is also a hedonistic drunk and a spoiled womaniser; rough and gentle, strong and weak, Neruda's character and image keeps shifting, and the film never offers a solution to these complexities. In one memorable scene, a waitress asks Neruda, sitting at a club-restaurant surrounded by his intellectual friends, suffused with alcohol, whether equality means that everyone will live like he does or whether it means that he, Neruda, will settle for less. Spoiler: Neruda never settles for less. Everybody gets to eat in bed.
Ultimately, 'Neruda' sinks under the weight of its pretensions.
The film rapidly cycles through film noir-style urban settings to stunning snow-covered terrains, all accompanied by meticulously recreated period costumes, designs, motorcycles and horses. Even the style of the film has a retro look and feel, which borders on farcical at times - the shots inside a moving car against an obvious green screen are like something from a 1940s detective movie.
There are several effective elements to the film - some good performances, the striking wide angle anamorphic photography that doesn't gel the windows to stop light swamping dim interiors, the commentary on the tensions in the Latin American scene where government authority dwindles as the pursuit moves further from the centre, the examination of Party Discipline and defiance. These contribute to a number of attention-grabbing scenes, such as a montage of readings of the furtively mailed poems to cheering groups of workers and admirers, his first antagonistic wife's broadcast turning into a disaster for the state, when she praises him despite having a writ against him for thousands of dollars, or Bernal's scene with the transvestite entertainer. The ambivalence of Neruda's relationships with the people sheltering him in his concealment dominates.
Ultimately, 'Neruda' sinks under the weight of its pretensions. The rapid-fire editing, with monologues running through several concurrent scenes, becomes annoying. The film is an utter slog at a hundred plus minutes. The plot meanders, the pace is frustratingly low energy and the compared fates of the two lead characters doesn't carry the revelatory message that Larraín obviously wants it to. In fact, it feels like the film would have been better served following a single character, rather than splitting itself between Neruda and Peluchonneau (who may or may not be character brought to life by Neruda's own vivid imagination).
Pablo Neruda once said: "And one by one the nights between our separated cities are joined to the night that unites us." Unfortunately, Pablo Larraín's 'Neruda' is merely a scattering of well-intentioned elements that needed to be joined together for a more effortless narrative presentation.