Larrain does not box ‘Neruda’ into a standard biopic
Director: Pablo Larrain
Writer: Guillermo Calderon
Starring: Luis Gnecco, Gael Garcia Bernal and Mercedes Moran
“Neruda” – How do you make a film about a complex, iconic and larger-than-life figure and successfully illustrate him or her into an effective and satisfying two-hour film experience? The short answer is: not very easily. Director Pablo Larrain, however, has marvelously accomplished this feat twice within the last year.
Larrain, who is from Chile, delivered his first American movie in 2016, a biopic about the celebrated first lady Jackie Kennedy in “Jackie”. His picture is not a standard bio in two ways. First, Larrain does not cover decades of Mrs. Kennedy’s life. He almost entirely focuses his time on the events immediately after JFK’s Nov. 1963 assassination. Secondly, leading up to film’s release, Larrain said in an interview that he did not wish to simply tell what occurred during those dark and confusing days. Instead, he wanted to make a film that was more organic, and one that allows the audience to feel and share the emotion of those events with Jackie (Natalie Portman). In some cases, Larrain and Portman interpret Jackie’s feelings, whether she is behind closed doors or out in the world: The White House, greater Washington D.C. and even Hyannis Port, MA, while in the throes of gut-wrenching mental anguish and uncertainty.
Pablo Neruda, an internationally famous, 20th Century poet, holds enormously high stature in his home country of Chile. According to Larrain, Neruda embodied many layers, including his love of cooking, wine, women, travel, and literature, and he also held a position in public office as a communist senator. He added that one could not “fit Neruda into a film (or) put him into any kind of box.” Like “Jackie”, “Neruda” is not a classic biopic either. Due to Neruda’s nature, rather than construct a movie about this poet/senator/idealist, Larrain’s picture “is more about (Neruda’s) world, (Neruda’s) cosmos.”
Surprisingly, “Neruda” reveals itself as a cat and mouse picture. Furthermore, this chase film turns the tables on the predator vs. prey model by presenting a mouse who chases a cat, with the feline pulling the puppet strings. Actually, in this case, the cat – who is the chasee - is a poet who writes the story.
Set in 1948, the Chilean President calls for Neruda’s (Luis Gnecco) arrest due to his communist beliefs, condemnation of the government and wide-reaching (and therefore, threatening) influence over the people. Neruda becomes a fugitive, and a nondescript police inspector, Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal), acts as a bounty hunter - without any promise of a future monetary reward – to bring him into custody.
Larrain does not play it safe, as he shoots with a purposeful, arthouse style. For example, he sometimes frames individual conversations in multiple locales. Various exchanges between Neruda and another (perhaps a loyal supporter or the president) move between rooms or settings every few seconds. One moment they are conversing in a ballroom and the next instant, they finish their exchange in a random, dark office. There is motion here - via changing locations - even when two or more people stand or sit perfectly still. Even when simple words are bartered back and forth, he paints a dynamic picture of their strong points of view through changing, moving environments.
Neruda finds himself on the move as well. Rather than eluding Peluchonneau by permanently hunkering down in a singular, remote corner of the country, he feels bored by that strategy. It simply is not sporting, fair or poetic to simply hide “under the bed.”
He adds, “This has to be a wild hunt.”
The actual hunt is wild, but not particularly nail-biting. In comparison to 2007’s “No Country for Old Men”, the Coen Brothers build about two dozen scenes of massive suspense, but Larrain does not create that kind of film. No, the audience does not witness Peluchonneau stalk Neruda with a captive bolt pistol or have his pit bull chase him down a speeding river. On the other hand, one absolutely never knows where Neruda will travel next, and this unexpected and unknown sense of space keeps the audience constantly engaged. Additionally, Peluchonneau sometimes feels like a distant echo spoken three years ago, but then suddenly appears within a few hundred yards of Neruda, or drastically and uncomfortably closer.
The lead protagonist and antagonist are obvious adversaries, but they both approach the hunt with gentlemanly honor, even though Neruda’s capture would lead to the amputation of his freedom. They respect one another and rent acreage in each other’s heads, but from a literary perspective, Larrain plays with the idea that Neruda scribes this entire affair with a pen and paper and fosters Peluchonneau as his lead pawn, at his mercy.
Some scenes do reveal the wide-reaching influence of Neruda’s words, but his actual writing becomes much more of a supporting player during this particularly nomadic time. With his lengthy catalog of inspiring words, this feels like a missed opportunity. Then again, that is not the movie’s point. In this world, Peluchonneau symbolically becomes Neruda’s creation, and this cinematic phenomenon stirs larger themes, such as an individual’s purpose in the game of life. In attempting to define Neruda’s world, Larrain undoubtedly won the year. In addition to “Jackie”, he won it twice.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.