‘Neruda’ Turns the Biography Film Into Fine Art

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CHICAGO – “In me nothing is extinguished or forgotten…” is a single line from a poem by Pablo Neruda (“If You Forget Me”), and succinctly describes the film tribute to him, written by Neruda’s fellow Chilean countryman Guillermo Calderón, and directed with grace by another Chilean, Pablo Larrain.

Hot off Larrain’s other superior biography, “Jackie,” this exploration of an important life moment of Pablo Neruda is finely tuned, literary and archly cinematic. It’s a dreamlike journey, but never floats away, and is anchored by passionate characterizations from Luis Gnecco as the title character, and the always interesting and sharp Gael García Bernal. It is a cat-and-mouse game that may be just cat or just mouse, depending on how your point of view actualizes the story. Although bordering on vague, it ultimately is entrancing, and makes for a variable comparison to the equally virtuous “Jackie.” Larrain might have one of the greatest one-two film punches ever released in the same year.

It is 1948, and Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is the poet laureate of Chile, and possesses one of the most romantic and artistic souls in literary history. He also is part of the political scene in Santiago, and served as Senator representing the Communist Party. President Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro) – who was at first a Neruda ally – turned the tables on him after the poet condemned the leader in a speech during a miner’s strike. Videla made Communism against the law, and forced Neruda to fugitive status after calling for his arrest.

Luis Gnecco Portrays the Title Character in ‘Neruda’
Photo credit: The Orchard

Neruda and his wife Delia Del Carril (Mercedes Morán) go into exile, first being hid around Santiago and then escaping to Southern Chile. Neruda is being pursued by Inspector Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), a virulent fascist and toady to President Videla. In his pursuit of the prey – and to understand him better – the inspector begins to read Neruda’s poetry, and finds a strange kinship that results in a resolution neither man expected.

The chase becomes absurdist, and the reality of Peluchonneau is called into question as he gets closer to his target. The two lead actors in this drama, Luis Gnecco and Gael García Bernal, are able to circle one another in a way that suggests a typical on-the-run scenario, but their relationship is ultimately painted as narrative art in the hands of director Larrain – which in turn is obviously inspired by Neruda’s status as a literary icon. The pursuit breaks down into more of a inevitable encounter between the two, and the film pays off staunchly and surprisingly in that inevitability.

Luis Gnecco not only favors Neruda physically, but has a ball portraying him, both as the poet and the politician (which involves equal passion). Women cannot resist the romantic legend of his work, and there are several scenes where the fat and bald poet is surrounded by naked gals in orgiastic indulgence. Gnecco is able to adopt the mantle of Pablo Neruda the artist and flawed human, in addition to the desperate and vulnerable fugitive.

Inspector Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) is in Pursuit of ‘Neruda’
Photo credit: The Orchard

The most difficult interpretation went to the gifted performer Gael García Bernal, whose inspector character flits from stoic investigator to romantic fanboy. Bernal is always welcome, even in the strangest of roles, and fulfills the devil/angel conflict of his character with measured amounts of obsession, cruelty and redemption. It gets to the point that whenever Larrain cuts to the inspector’s story, the soul of Bernal’s portrayal is dancing like a moth around Neruda’s light. This conflict in the midst of the chase culminates in a rare beauty, that lifts a seemingly procedural story into another realm.

This is not an easy film, but neither is the absorption of fine poetry. To honor Neruda is to know him as the creator and purveyor of influential thought – but Pablo Larrain’s film also honors Neruda’s truth, a truth so elusive it cannot be captured even in the physical presence of the actual man. Another line in the poem “If You Forget Me”… “My love feeds on your love, beloved and as long as you live…it will be in your arms without leaving mine.”

”Neruda” continued its limited release in Chicago on December 30th, at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 North Southport. See local listings for other theaters and show times. Featuring Luis Gnecco, Gael García Bernal, Mercedes Morán and Alfredo Castro. Written by Guillermo Calderón. Directed by Pablo Larrain. Rated “R”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2017 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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