In cinemas Nationwide now.
It’s difficult not to see Pablo Larraín’s Neruda as a companion piece to his own Jackie, released in the UK earlier this year. This is not only down to both being unconventional takes on a biopic, but both are intensely focussed on the nature of performance. Not in the acting (although considering how Natalie Portman and Luis Gnecco inhabit their roles can further highlight this theme), but how we present difference faces, different versions of our self depending on our needs for manipulation, seduction or self-preservation.
In this country, we may think of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda as the exile portayed rather tweely by Philippe Noiret in Il Postino, but here he’s depicted in rapacious glory as a man devoted to the struggles of the workers, who isn’t above throwing lavish faux-Roman, boho-orgy bacchanals complete with recitations of his own work. If the phrase “Champagne Communist” wasn’t being thrown around by his enemies in the Chilean senate it would be a surprise. He’s threatened with arrest by the anti-communist president Gabriel González Videla and flees. He’s pursued by Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), a fascist police chief inclined towards poetic thoughts of his own, as evidenced by his florid narration.
That Neruda is an artifice is highlighted throughout the film. Larraín seems keen to remind us that films that purport to depict historical persons and events remain fictional constructs. He uses tricks like ropey old-fashioned back projection when the characters are in cars or, in one deliberately ludicrous scene, a motorbike and sidecar. As the cat and mouse chase between the two men become ever more drawn-out, more cliched police movie tropes are thrown in. At one point, Oscar is even told by Neruda’s mistress that he’s a fictional supporting character created by the poet to make his exile appear perhaps more heroic than it is. It all nods to the great post-modern tradition in Latin American literature, like Márquez or Borges and within this narrowly playful frame it’s certainly fun.
However, everything is at the mercy of the construct. Larraín and writer Guillermo Calderón simply don’t inject enough momentum into the story, and hope it’ll coast by on its stylistic meta-trickery. Whereas Jackie, which admittedly had its critics, was laser-guided in its focus on the different ways Jackie Kennedy was forced to present herself in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination, Neruda (not unlike its subject if we’re being unkind), feels flabby and self-indulgent. Whereas there are elements to admire it’s ultimately something of a curate’s egg.