Chilean director Pablo Larraín, who also directed this year’s “Jackie,” gives us a fascinating take on the personal and political life of the noted Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Working from a screenplay by Guillermo Calderón, Larraín dramatizes Neruda, an avowed communist, going underground when communism is outlawed in 1948 and being hunted by an ambitious police inspector trying to make a name for himself.
The film is highlighted by two impressive performances, with Luis Gnecco a colorful force as the poet and politician Neruda and Gael García Bernal as Oscar Peluchonneau, the lawman in pursuit. On the one hand the drama is a personal, do-or-die conflict between these two men. It is also a scan of the dynamic political climate at the time, with Neruda a vigorous spokesman for what he believes.
This is not a typical biopic. The direction and screenplay turn it into an impressionist, poetic take. We see different sides of Neruda, as a womanizer and nightlife person, for example, and also a friend of those who are different. He loves being adored. He delights in standing on principle. The film also has a cultural bent as it is enlivened by recitation of Neruda’s poems.
As for Bernal, he reflects the inspector’s fanatical dedication to catching Neruda, and there is an ultimate sequence in which, in a chilling scene in a snowy landscape (Sergio Armstrong was the director of photography), the hunter meets his doom. But the film, in its impressionistic mode, enables him to reflect upon his death.
Gnecco as Neruda makes good company as a larger-than-life figure, and there is a scene in which he meets Pablo Picasso, played by Emilio Guitiérrez Caba. The film is populated by an assortment of characters, including politicians and impressive women in the poet’s life, especially his wife Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), who goes into hiding with him.
“Neruda,” which Chile has chosen as its official Oscar entry in the best foreign language category, ranks among the best films of 2016. A The Orchard release. Reviewed December 12, 2016.