Chilean director Pablo Larraín triumphs again, in this historical meditation on the great poet Pablo Neruda, fleeing his homeland in 1948 when his government outlaws his political party, slyly narrated from the viewpoint of a police agent on his trail.
Neruda, from Chilean director Pablo Larraín, is centered, as you would expect, around the figure of Chile’s great poet, Pablo Neruda. But most everything else about this marvelous film is unexpected. The story concerns one dramatic and dangerous period in the poet’s life. In 1948, the new president of Chile outlaws the Communist Party, and orders the arrest of Neruda, who serves as a senator representing that party. With the help of his many left wing friends, Neruda goes into hiding, and makes plans for an eventual escape from the country and into exile.
Neruda is played masterfully by Luis Gnecco, rotund, impish, yet embodying the mesmerizing quality of the poet who commanded the love of working people. The opening scene shows him dressed as a sheik at a costume party during which he recites one of his most famous love poems to a rapt audience. He’s a man of many contradictions—and although he chooses to go underground, he enjoys taking the risk of discovery, at one point walking the streets of Santiago at night disguised as a priest, and coming very close to getting caught.
It’s fitting for a movie about a poet that this is very much a film of words, and the screenplay, by Guillermo Calderon, is intelligent, witty, and supremely ironic. Calderon’s finest touch is the invention of a fictional police inspector played by Gael Garcia Bernal. The inspector is assigned to capture Neruda, and he supplies the film’s voice-over narration. A strict law and order conservative and anticommunist, the inspector provides a running commentary on the action, which has a delightful doubling effect. We watch Neruda’s journey while the inspector’s voice opines sarcastically on the leftist poet and statesman’s pretensions and dubious moral choices. As in the best kinds of fiction, we are not confined to a correct or heroic point of view. Neruda is indeed all too human. He loves his adoring partner Delia, played by Mercedes Moran, but he is unable to enjoy physical fulfillment with her, instead resorting to brothels and frivolous sex games.
The director’s style is fluid, gliding, expansive and inventive. The camera is moving constantly, always in a graceful way. Pablo Larraín has been in quite a zone lately. Right after making this film he went to America and filmed Jackie with Natalie Portman, another tour de force that I reviewed here recently. This film is actually more accomplished, full of visual treasures and evoking a wide range of feeling and insight. With the addition of Garcia Bernal’s police inspector, the picture delves into the nature of fiction itself, the mystery of the subject, and the secret links between characters who are seemingly from opposite worlds. There are even rear projection shots in some of the driving scenes, a tip of the hat to the essential artificiality of cinema.
In an especially beguiling sequence, Delia confides that Neruda’s story, of which we happen to be watching a part, is also in a sense written by Neruda, the individual poet standing in for the universal spirit of poetry which gives life to artistic creation. The poet lives in the world while creating the world: an amusing, mysterious, beguiling world—qualities also reflected in the film Neruda.