'Neruda': Cannes Review

Neruda still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Director’s Fortnight Film
A highly original investigation of the truth-fiction divide.

Gael Garcia Bernal reteams with 'No' director Pablo Larrain to play an obsessive detective on the trail of the famed Chilean poet-politician forced into exile in 1948.

The conflicting forces that shape the Chilean national identity have been an overarching theme in the work of Pablo Larrain, whether it’s the festering chaos and violence of the Pinochet regime in Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No, or the moral bankruptcy of the Catholic church in The Club. The slyly subversive originality of those films made it a safe bet that the director was never going to be backed into a conventional bio-drama corner, even by a subject as colossal as that cultural giant of his homeland, the Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda.

Focusing on the period in the late 1940s when the writer, a Senator in the Chilean Communist Party, was forced into political exile and lived in hiding before fleeing first to Argentina and then to France, Neruda takes its stylistic cues from the poet's work. Guillermo Calderon's screenplay blends surreal perspective, political anger, simmering passion, mordant humor and celebratory sensuality in a cat-and-mouse tale that's also a kind of dreamy fantasist's love affair between the persecutor and the fugitive.

The film at times is more playful than illuminating, but it's also a handsomely crafted and boldly idiosyncratic contemplation of a great artist for whom political compromise was anathema. That should ensure that it continues to expand Larrain's international footprint as one of the most distinctive Latin American directors to emerge in the past decade.

An enlivening strain of droll, irreverent comedy runs throughout the film, starting with an opening scene that shows post-WWII Chilean politics literally in the toilet. The outspoken Neruda (Luis Gnecco) antagonizes president Gabriel Gonzalez Videla (Alfredo Castro), who rose to power as head of a leftist coalition, but has since sidestepped to the right. When Videla bows to Cold War influences and outlaws Communism in 1948, Neruda has already become a political embarrassment. He has far too much sway over the country's workers, whose love for him is destined to grow as his poems are circulated by underground allies like a literary resistance movement. The government's attempts to humiliate Neruda and discredit him with the populace are unsuccessful.

Larrain and Calderon show limited interest in following the standard biographical steps. Instead, they build intrigue by creating an obsessive central relationship between Neruda and Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal), the ambitious but dim detective assigned to hunt him down. Peluchonneau's needling thoughts heard in voiceover provide the story's connective thread. As much as the film is about a poet in flight, remaking himself as a symbolic hero of the people, it's also about a nobody of dubious origins, determined to make his name count by measuring himself against a man of greatness.

In Peluchonneau's version of his past, he's the illegitimate son of a revered police force leader and a prostitute. But his identity grows increasingly amorphous, even to himself, as he steadily becomes a product of Neruda's fiction. The poet loves to read police procedurals, and he leaves a signed crime novel behind as a clue at every stop in a clandestine journey that in reality has him hiding in plain sight.

Neruda is accompanied at first by his adoring wife Delia (Mercedes Moran), a painter and Argentinean aristocrat educated in Paris, who tolerates his penchant for whoring hedonism. But eventually, Neruda sheds his wife and his Party minders, heading off with strangers on horseback across the Andes, with Peluchonneau still on his tail in a compelling final act that blurs the lines between fiction and reality.

Clever use of back projection in scenes with Peluchonneau in pursuit on a motorcycle underscores the intention to coax a story from the poet's (and by extension, the filmmakers') imagination as much as from history. Composer Federico Jusid's classic mystery score, with its agitated bursts of Bernard Herrmann-style strings, also reinforces the drama's placement in a fictionalized realm.

Gnecco and Bernal appeared together in Larrain's No, and both register strongly in their roles here. Their myth-making characters' contrasting presences — one a big, doughy man who acquires authority and seductive power through his words, the other a wiry, hungry type, consumed by the need to define himself and outrun his insecurities — give the film a lively duality. On one hand, it's the story of an artist adding fuel to his already outsized legend, and on the other, a driven man refusing to be a supporting character in someone else's plot.

Moran does fine work as Neruda's wife, her unconditional love never masking the melancholy awareness that her brilliant husband is also a vain, selfish man, too fixated on his public persona and legacy ever to be entirely hers. One particularly memorable scene follows their breakup, when Peluchonneau tracks Delia down and she tells him, with soothing condescension, that he will never be a protagonist in Neruda's story. Larrain regular Castro also makes an incisive impression in his small role as Videla.

The movie looks superb. Sergio Armstrong's cinematography lacquers the faded haze of the past over the widescreen images (the sprawling landscapes of the final section are particularly stunning) and drapes noir-toned shadows over the interiors in Peluchonneau's scenes; production designer Estefania Larrain fills the artsy homes, bohemian clubs and bordellos with rich detail.

This is a strange film that tonally is sometimes hard to pin down. With its reams of prose-like voiceover, it can be simultaneously beguiling and distancing, sketching a portrait of an iconic cultural figure while at the same time rendering him enigmatic, almost unknowable. And yet the relationships are riveting, notably that of Neruda and Peluchonneau, despite them having almost no shared screen time. Their dynamic gives physical life to the eternally fascinating dividing lines separating history from legend, and in this case, from contemporary reinvention.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight)
Cast: Luis Gnecco, Gael Garcia Bernal, Mercedes Moran, Diego Munoz, Pablo Derqui, Michael Silva, Jaime Vadell, Alfredo Castro, Marcelo Alonso, Francisco Reyes, Alejandro Goic, Emilio Gutierrz Caba
Production companies: Fabula, AZ Films, Funny Balloons, Setembro Cine, in association with Participant Media
Director: Pablo Larrain
Screenwriter: Guillermo Calderon
Producers: Juan de Dios Larrain, Peter Danner, Renan Artukmac, Alex Zito, Juan Pablo Garcia, Ignacio Rey, Gaston Rothschild, Fernanda del Nido
Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King, Marc Simoncini, Mariane Hartard, Rocio Jadue
Director of photography: Sergio Armstrong
Production designer: Estefania Larrain
Costume designer: Muriel Parra
Music: Federico Jusid
Editor: Herve Schneid
Casting: Moira Miller, Alejandra Alaff
Sales: Funny Balloons, Participant Media
No rating, 109 minutes.