Neruda is a poetically crafted and surreal biopic 

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Historic figure Pablo Neruda is most known outside his native Chile as one of the 20th century’s greatest poets. Not to be lost among celebrated works like the collection Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair or the epic Canto General is his work as a diplomat, senator and leader of Chile’s communist party.

The Neruda in the 2016 namesake Spanish-language biopic by Chilean director Pablo Larraín (known to American audiences for Jackie, yet another 2016 historic character study, this one focused on the widow of President John F. Kennedy) is also these things, but in a stylized alternative timeline appearing so poetic that the account almost plays like a fantastically scripted, fictitious epic.

The story begins three years after World War II. Chilean president Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro) has declared war on communism within his country, partially because of opposition and criticism to his oppressive regime by Neruda (Luis Gnecco) and other party sympathizers. Videla recognizes Neruda as the vital poetic spirit behind a potential homegrown revolution and asks handsome mustachioed police inspector Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) to hunt the poet down and bring him into custody so the state can find a way to publicly humiliate him.

There is no Peluchonneau on historic record. Larraín manufactures the character as a noir manifestation of law, order and everything that opposes or runs counter to artistic freedom. Even in the film, the policeman seems to acknowledge his own fictitiousness within his introspective, first-person narrative that runs parallel to other internal musings by Neruda, his foil.

The poet’s long exile and ultimate escape through the snowy Andes and into refuge in France with artist friend Pablo Picasso are the primary focus of the film and historic fact.

Chilean actor Gnecco plays Neruda with great physical resemblance. Neruda appears as a man beloved by many, from high-society socialites to poor political prisoners.

Larraín paints a complex portrait of the poet. Neruda is simultaneously a tender sympathizer of the struggles of poor Chileans and a self-important egomaniac aware of and obsessed with his everlasting place in history. This is never more apparent than in his unguarded interactions with wife Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), who must share Neruda’s love with his crazed following.

Though the film is titled Neruda, this story is equally about Peluchonneau. The inspector seems tortured by Neruda’s art, but even more by the feeling that he is just a bit player in Neruda’s life story, which will be remembered long after he’s dead.

Larraín might have missed some opportunities for true suspense in the inspector’s pursuit of Neruda. Though there are times when they are in incredibly close proximity, the audience never gets the impression of true peril. The director already unbound himself from the constraints of historic reality, so it would not have been much of a stretch to add a more real sense of danger to the story.

Perhaps Larraín’s intention was not to distract from Peluchonneau’s poetic ascension. The story reaches its surreal peak in the wintery summits of the Andes, when the officer finally comes within a hundred yards of Neruda. In a way, it’s like a thinking man’s version of the climax in 2015’s The Revenant. There’s not much of a physical struggle, but Peluchonneau fades from the scene in a spurt of epiphany, finally realizing his own place in history.

What makes Neruda so interesting is that it exists both as a worthwhile account of the historic poet and a fantastic metaphor for the relationship between art and the conditions in which it is created.

Some might knock Larraín’s telling for not strictly sticking to a historic script, but his poetic vision is probably something that could have been appreciated by Neruda himself.

Print headline: Warped reality, Surreal biopic Neruda screens at OKCMOA following its 2017 Golden Globe nomination.  

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