Last year, Chilean director Pablo Larraín made his English language debut with an unorthodox biopic on Jacqueline Kennedy (Jackie uses strong performance, meticulous staging to transmit urge for life beyond death– a film review). By focusing on a small window of time — Kennedy as a widow just after the death of her husband — he captured a character informed and defined by a moment in time. It was a bit myopic, but it presented something to consider beyond the character, something more universal: the feeling of private mourning and dealing with a huge, horrific loss under the scrutiny of the public eye, as concerns for legacy melted into personal longing for the loss of a love.
Earlier in the year, Larraín had captured part of another true life story via a means that is also informed by the character rather than precise facts. Though not as bold as Jackie, Neruda also departs far from what you would expect of a biopic. Despite the dirty filters Larraín seems so fond of using (especially in his previous movie 2015’s The Club), Neruda is a pretty movie that builds to a terrific send off to the dauntless, often inept and ultimately non-existent police inspector Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) allegedly in pursuit of the fugitive poet and communist Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco), in the late 1940s. There are lens flares aplenty, giving off patterns you probably have never seen in a movie, and then there is that voice over work by Bernal, who plays a man with a flair for words because — spoiler alert — Neruda created them. You see, though he drives the film’s action, Óscar is a fiction made up by Neruda to romanticize his exile from Chile.
It’s a rather ingenious creation by screenwriter Guillermo Calderón, and the director keeps the film visually interesting in respect of this. Were it not for this spice in perspective, this film would hardly feel as engaging for its near two-hour run time. In fact, I hate to note, it feels longer. The hushed but poetic (what else?) narration by Bernal can come across as droning at times. It’s appropriate for the dream-like character but can be challenging to follow if you do not speak Spanish. Sticking with its oneiric quality, when the camera swirls around its subjects during several scenes, it’s less intense and more lulling and hypnotic.
At least the film features plenty of sardonic humor that doesn’t make Neruda a hero as much as an idolized but flawed character who wore his ego too proudly, which offers a side commentary to the ideological failings of communism. The film also features an odd, artificial sense of green screen when characters are in or on vintage vehicles of the period. As shots alternate between location and green screen with a haphazard inconsistency, it calls attention to itself, and adds to the film’s surreal quality. Like Larraín’s hyper filtered lenses, it speaks to the filter of nostalgia and the romanticized idea of fame, hero-worship and ideology the film skewers at several levels. Though not a perfect film, Neruda is a refreshing perspective on the biopic that speaks to the failings of the genre while transmitting an idealization of a real life celebrity. It’s a smart movie on many levels that’s worth checking out if you have the patience for its challenges.
Neruda runs 108 minutes, is in Spanish and French with English subtitles and is rated R. It opens in our South Florida area at the O Cinema Wynwood and Miami-Dade College Tower Theater on Jan. 27. We first caught this movie during its Florida premiere at Miami Film Festival’s Gems.