Bio pics don’t always have to be as straight ahead as you might think and it’s a fairly remarkable thing when a director pulls it off not once, but twice inside the same calendar year.
A cultural icon, political force and a beloved poet all rolled into one; Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is also the most famous communist in post-WWII Chile and when the political tides shift, he is forced underground with a perseverant police inspector (Gael García Bernal) hot on his trail. Meanwhile, in Europe, the legend of the poet hounded by the policeman grows, and artists led by Pablo Picasso clamor for Neruda’s freedom. Neruda however, sees the struggle with his police inspector nemesis as an opportunity to reinvent himself and one that he finds himself inspired by creatively. While in hiding he cunningly plays with the inspector, leaving clues designed to make their game of cat-and-mouse ever more perilous and fascinating. It’s the story of a persecuted poet and his obsessive adversary locked in a unique battle as Neruda himself recognizes the unique opportunity in front of him: a chance to become a symbol for liberty, as well as a literary legend.
With Neruda, director Pablo Larrain takes us on somewhat of an existential and intuitive ride that while not necessarily historically accurate allowed for us to go on a very literary and lyrical ride.
Working together with writer Guillermo Calderon for the second time in a row, Larrain crafts a narrative that hinges on the power of the words that are spoken by these characters. It plays in almost an operatic feel as we have these two very distinct characters dueling at each other, not necessarily through direct action but through words and it plays in an almost ‘meta’ fashion at times. They are both reinventing the nature of the bio pic and making it experiential allowing it to be more intellectually playful then standardly enjoyable and Larrain leads it all by making sure we never feel too grounded in any realities of the story through some obvious cinematic nods and tricks to have feel almost like a visual fable but with characters grounded in reality. While it does get a little flighty at times, it is effective as a piece of art that lets us interpret it rather than trying to track facts or events. It’s a fun look at historical characters.
While Luis Gnecco is fun as the enigmatic Neruda playing is half figure for social change and half a whore mongering hedonist, it never manages to connect on an emotional level as the situation that these men are in is just much more compelling then the characters themselves. Even the stalwart Gael Garcia Bernal on the opposite side of this coin as the determined inspector Óscar Peluchonneau isn’t someone we get behind and feels kind of like a prop to the narrative, granted an important one but never outside of being a function for the story.
At the end of the day, Neruda is an interesting little piece of cinema that manages to be a serious look at the history behind these men while being a playfully dark look at this period of time. It won’t be for everyone but will reward those looking for something just a teeny bit different.