Lisa: Pablo Neruda said laughter was the language of the soul.
Bart: I am familiar with the works of Pablo Neruda.
The Simpsons, episode 3F02, ‘Bart Sells His Soul’
If Bart Simpson’s familiarity with Pablo Neruda makes you want to seek out more about the Chilean poet and politician, it’s unlikely that Pablo Larraín’s Neruda will make you any the wiser. Ostensibly, this is the director’s second biopic in a year, after his gilded-yet-grounded ode to the former Ms. Bouvier, Jackie. Yet, if that film saw Jackie Kennedy determined to prove to the world the kind of strength she possessed, Neruda does exactly the opposite. This is a far more playful film, but is also a lot less enamoured with its subject. It plonks an all-too-human Neruda in the middle of a stylised, seductive-looking thriller which borrows from reality, but never feels compelled to adhere to it too rigidly.
The film opens in 1948, with Neruda (Luis Gnecco, who gained over 50 pounds for the role) delivering a speech to parliament, in which he denounces president Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro) and his government. In case the satire of the moment is too subtle, this all takes place in a lavatory, with Neruda beginning his speech whilst standing at a urinal. It’s a broad stroke, but Neruda is constantly undermining its subject matter. Perhaps its biggest coup is refusing to let the Nobel laureate tell this story.
Our guide through this tale is police detective Oscar Peluchonneau, who is tasked with arresting the on-the-run Neruda after the Videla government outlaws Communism. Peluchonneau is played with quiet conviction by Gael Garcia Bernal, and he serves as our guide through Neruda. He proves an erudite speaker, and he fits seamlessly into Larrain’s less-than-trustworthy sense of style. Neruda doesn’t elevate its title character, but it elevates everything else. From Sergio Armstrong’s blue-tinted cinematography to the flowery descriptions screenwriter Guillermo Calderón gifts to Peluchonneau, the film surrounds a very flawed, real man with artificial textures. It all serves to highlight Gnecco’s commitment to his role, as his doughy artist flits between devotion to his wife Delia (Mercedes Morán) and visiting brothels. There’s no moment at which a great line of poetry comes to Neruda; this is a recognisably petty man, understandably bitter at his treatment, yet denied a victim status in the film by his own flaws. As initial political intrigues give way to a handsome, yet episodic manhunt, the film improves as Peluchonneau draws closer to Neruda, resulting in a finale of surprising poignancy. It’s just a pity it takes a while to get there.
While there’s clearly a fascinating story to tell in Neruda, Larraín’s film can’t help but feel self-contradictory. The stylistics may contrast against Gnecco’s humane portrayal, but it also means that the plotline about Neruda is among the film’s least interesting aspects. It’s not that the film is disinterested in Neruda; far from it. He just seems to have inspired Larraín to create other characters and storylines that ultimately prove more interesting. One can’t help but imagine a film focused solely on Delia with the terrific Morán in the lead, or the fictional Peluchonneau. Bernal, who also starred in Larrain’s No, is a riveting, charismatic presence, a sleek contrast to the pudgy poet. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but Neruda’s fictions prove more compelling than its truth, despite Gnecco’s committment. There’s poetry aplenty in Neruda, but it isn’t Neruda’s.