Director: Pablo Larraín
Cast: Luis Gnecco, Gael García Bernal, Mercedes Morán, Alfredo Castro, Diego Muñoz, Pablo Derqui, Jaime Vadell, Michael Silva
MPAA Rating: (for sexuality/nudity and some language)
Running Time: 1:47
Release Date: 12/16/16 (limited); 12/30/16 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | December 29, 2016
In the relationship between the cop and the fugitive, who holds the power? That's one of the major questions of Neruda, a film about the eponymous poet, who spent four years on the run from the Chilean government and in exile for being a communist. Because one of the central figures of the story is an artist, Guillermo Calderón's screenplay takes the question a step further into existential territory: Does the cop create the fugitive, or does the fugitive create the cop?
The film is about both men—the poet and the police officer. Conveniently, this means it's also about their respective hypocrisies, class identity, fame, and disillusionment with the systems of which they—as well as other people surrounding them—are a part. This is not some glowing ode to the poet, who at the time was considered the most famous communist in the world. It portrays him as something of an opportunist—a man whose political beliefs seemed to come by whim after meeting the woman who would become his second wife—and an oblivious romantic.
He's a man who is convinced that he is now, officially, a rebel, and in his poet's mind, Neruda (played by Luis Gnecco) has a picture of what a rebel should be. There's a scene of him target shooting in the back yard of one of his hideouts, and with each shot of the pistol, he takes a step closer, because he can't hit anything. Just before a climactic race for the Argentina-Chile border, the poet flashes a smile as he spots the horse on which he will ride throughout his daring escape. Then he tries to mount the steed. It does not, as one might expect, go well.
The film's version of Neruda isn't as bumbling or foolish as it might sound from these two episodes, but he is ill-equipped for the life of a legitimate political dissident. He's a man of material things, of official stature, and of the joy of being recognized by complete strangers in a crowded room. His wife Delia (Mercedes Morán) has similar tastes. When members of the local Communist Party come to check on them, the couple apologizes for the state of the apartment. She simply can't wash dishes because it dries out her hands. Cleanliness, Neruda finally decides, is a bourgeois quality, anyway. Their filth will also be part of this rebellious act.
The cop is Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), who receives direct orders from Chilean President Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro) to apprehend Neruda. The year is 1948, and the world war has shifted to a cold one. As Peluchonneau notes during his steady narration of the story, González Videla is under pressure from the United States government to put a stop to communism in Chile. Peluchonneau doesn't care about this foreign influence. He is more concerned with his target's hypocrisy—which no one else, to his mind, seems to see—and the threat the beloved poet may pose to law and order in the country.
Peluchonneau is both the film's regular narrator and its most fascinating character. This is a man who does not know his origin. His mother was a prostitute, and the identity of his father was unknown. Peluchonneau decided to assume the lineage of a famous police officer and, now, has a legacy to live up to. Early on, Calderón's screenplay also introduces another piece of doubt about the character's origins, although that is best left for later.
Peluchonneau is not the film's only narrator. He is joined on occasion by a few bit players in the chase. The most notable one is Jara (Michael Silva), a Communist Party member and true believer, who becomes one of Neruda's primary handlers as the poet moves across the country looking for an escape route. Jara's offhanded thoughts serve as a complement to Peluchonneau's more thorough deconstruction of Neruda's flaws as a communist icon. Basically, Calderón sneaks glimpses into Jara's mind as Neruda touts his bona fides. A comment about how much work the poet has done for the cause in a day is met with director Pablo Larraín cutting to Jara's increasingly disillusioned reaction. Then we hear the man's response to the poet's self-aggrandizement (as in: he didn't do any actual work; he just wrote for part of the day).
Neruda is a romantic. His love poems are what he is known for across the country. He cannot escape that fame (Even after he is elected to the Chilean Senate, people still want to him recite his poem about writing the "saddest lines"), but there's also a sense that he doesn't want to escape it, either. He repeatedly puts himself in public places, surrounded by people, where he is easily spotted and recognized (such as restaurants, nightclubs, and brothels), even though he is a criminal on the lam. Neruda soaks in the admiration and adoration, dismissing a poor woman's legitimate concerns about what communism will mean for her if it were to become a reality.
Let's return to Peluchonneau, whose existence is key to Calderón and Larraín's complex aims with the film. Mainly, there's the question of the nature of his existence, whether he is real or simply someone who is, as the cop puts it during his entrance into the story, the product of Neruda's ink on a blank page. Neruda leaves it intentionally fuzzy, because the point is not whether the cop is real or imaginary—just as it's not the point that Neruda was, in practical terms, a successful revolutionary. As the voices of the two men blend together in the final telling of events, we realize that their stories are what matter to people, regardless of whether those tales are genuine or fictional.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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