review by oisín walsh
Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) and his life in exile in Chile in 1948 are the subject of Pablo Larraín’s latest film Neruda, and yet we don’t learn as much about him as we would in a typical biopic. The story is narrated by the anti-communist detective Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal). This narration is drenched in heavy literary language, not unlike the language of a poet; language that should carry great weight, language that should inspire its audience. Yet I left the cinema thoroughly uninspired, I was unaffected by the language of the narration or by this period in Neruda’s life.
Neruda deals with the problematic issue of the wealthy fighting for the rights of workers when they themselves do not work. Peluchonneau comments during one of Neruda’s hedonistic parties that if there was a Bolshevik revolution in Chile, that Neruda and his colleagues would be the first to flee. How can those who do not “work” claim to represent the rights and the cause of the working class? Peluchonneau, in his narration, mocks Neruda’s profession as a poet, insinuating that it is not work. When a colleague asks Neruda if he's been working, Peluchonneau, speaking in his omnipotent narration, states “No, just writing”, disrespecting the prose and poetry of the writer.
While the film is titled after the poet, the film focuses ultimately focuses more on Peluchonneau’s chase as opposed to Neruda’s escape. This leads into one of the film’s central ideas: Peluchonneau’s desire to be the protagonist in his own story. Towards the end of the film, Neruda’s wife informs the detective that this chase he has engaged in is merely a narrative that Neruda has constructed; that Peluchonneau is simply a “supporting character” in this chase. This injures his pride and he is further pushed to capture the fugitive believing that it will elevate him to a greater status; he would become the protagonist of this hunt and win victory over the Poet.
Narrative aside, Neruda looks beautiful. From the atmospheric lighting of the confined spaces of Neruda’s hideouts to the open expansive shots of Chile’s mountain ranges, the images that are captured are captivating from the opening shot to the very last. They are cut together in a non-continuous fashion which keeps the viewer alert and engaged as they piece the scenes together and almost hypnotises the audience. However, this can also complicate the already complex narrative; it is easy for one to get lost in the captivating images but difficult for one to tune in to the plot or meaning of Neruda.
Despite Peluchonneau’s biased critique of Neruda and his work, which he views as hollow and meaningless, the film eventually lands on the note that the poetry and legacy of Neruda articulates and immortalises the voice of the exploited working class. At a moment like this, it would be appropriate for the audience to be inspired and persuaded of the film’s final message. Yet, I felt nothing of the sort. Perhaps the director was not aiming to achieve this ambiguity, but does that mean he is not persuaded of his own message? Perhaps the effect was lost in translation or it could just be I failed to understand the meaning. Nevertheless, the impact was not felt.
Neruda provokes conflicting feelings, as it is a beautifully shot film and there is no denying that there is some engaging dialogue and narration within it. My interest in the poet and politician was piqued but not quenched by the film itself. Something feels missing from Neruda. A more conventional structure to the narrative would enable one to more keenly follow the hunt for Neruda, or perhaps a greater insight into Neruda’s thoughts would have been beneficial. I would recommend viewing this film if you wish to be challenged and would like to explore an unconventional biopic. This is a film where the audience needs to work and focus intently in order to be entertained by it.