Praise be to Pablo Larrain for not making a pretentious, lovesick biopic on Pablo Neruda. The Chilean poet/diplomat deserves more from cinema, and Larrain delivers, crafting an intricate, stylish and, above all, poetic work that highlights the writer’s idealism and contradictions, as well as the resounding value of a great poet to a culture.
And just as outstanding as Larrain’s direction are the performances of Luis Gnecco, who plays Neruda, and Gael Garcia Bernal, who plays Oscar Peluchonneau, a fictional police inspector charged with finding the poet after he went into hiding in 1948. At that moment in history, the poet was on the run after his communist party was effectively outlawed in Chile. Yet, the film isn’t a history of Neruda, or even an examination of this particular period in his life. The historical setup, instead, is more like a vehicle on which a portrait of the poet can sway and turn, projecting both the dark and diaphanous parts of his personality.
Neruda, indeed, often shows how the poet was in conflict with his politics. While the writer appears to seriously consider himself to be the voice of the downtrodden, his lifestyle was anything but modest. His appetite for life can be seen in just his size, and the way he roars at his communist party minders (those who are working to keep him safe) betrays that the fact that the poet is not like those for which he sings. He’s an elite, and, at some level, he knows it.
Yet, the Chilean people don’t love Neruda because of his politics. They love him because he’s their greatest living poet. There’s a particularly moving scene in which a drag performer describes to Peluchonneau, while in custody, what it meant to have the poet recite his famous “Tonight I can Write” to him. The confession captures the greatest power of poetry – of any art form, for that matter — which is transcendence. The words and language, although expertly crafted in the poet’s imagination, belong to all.
That’s what the film’s masterful ending hints at as well. Bernal, whose performance as the untrustworthy antagonist deserves more praise than I’m giving him here, provides us with an ingenious perspective: that of the poet’s enemy. Here, the fictional character, created by writer Guillermo Calderón, is in full pursuit of the poet’s greatness, whereby capturing the writer he may take some of Neruda’s glory as his own. In this way, too, the enemy follows the poet as though he’s in love, severely underestimating the imagination that eventually turns the film’s cat-and-mouse game on its head.
In some sense, however, Peluchonneau is not that different from us in the audience. Like him, we are trying to understand the poet — his unceasing appreciation for life, his appetite for love, his great folly in supporting Stalin — only to become enamored in his talent, the fruits of which continue to grow, to touch our hearts and remind us that, on some terrible nights, we too can write the saddest lines.
Neruda is playing at the Uptown Theatre.