A warning to the unaware – this is not a biopic. At least not your usual biopic. Director Pablo Larraín (who wooed us all a few years ago with No and is about to release his first English feature, the much awaited Jackie) and writer Guillermo Calderón create a film that is less history and more story, inspired by the poet himself, a character study with shades of noir and the occasional political reflection.
Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is advised by the Communist Party that he is about to be arrested for his anti-government comments. In charge of arresting him, Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), a young police officer who isn’t completely sure of his filiation or importance in the thriller chase. As both men progress to Argentina, leaving a trace of pulp novels behind, are we really sure of what is real and what is not?
Neruda is, above all, form, as if Larraín and his cinematographer Sergio Armstrong decided to create the cinematic equivalent of iambic pentameter. We have a camera that waltz around the characters, a meta-narrative voice over and editing (courtesy of the great Hervé Schneid, who also worked in Amelie and Europa) that respects dialogue continuity while jumping between locations and time. Though the voice over (by Bernal) does become tiring at points, the rest is masterful. Problem is, the stylization is so appealing we lose track of the rest of the film. Bernal doesn’t have that many chances to shine (maybe appropriate as he plays a character that we’re not sure exists), and though Gnecco gives Neruda a charm and arrogance hard to pull without losing charisma, we feel kind of lost in the middle of something we’re not sure how to feel about. The last 15 minutes are excellent, however, and it makes us wonder why couldn’t the rest of the film be half as good as that.
Maybe fans of the Chilean poet will be able to take more of the movie than the general audience, to which Neruda may well feel too much artifice and not enough meat. As a silly, slightly surreal story, it does deliver some entertainment, mostly from the strange mix between cheap thriller and highly poetical meta-narrative. The political overtones make us look forward and with curiosity to the upcoming Jackie; as for this film itself, it may fade quicker than a firework.
Neruda will be in UK theatres in 7th April 2017