Innovative and visually stunning, the impressionistic drama “Neruda” is part political thriller and part meditative artistic exploration by a filmmaker who is clearly fascinated by that intersection. Chilean writer-director Pablo Larrain’s previous films reveal his interest in politics, particularly 2012’s satirical “No,” a look at the ad campaign that helped unseat Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. (Larrain is also doubling up for 2016, with his “Jackie” currently in theaters as well.)
Here, he blends a smattering of historical details about the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet-politician Pablo Neruda with imaginative elements in a beguiling style. Had he tried to capture the intricacies of Neruda’s multi-hyphenate life as a diplomat, senator in the Communist party, political exile, and writer of yearning poems, it would probably have lent itself to a mini-series. He chose instead to focus on one year — 1948 — when Neruda, an outspoken and worldly Communist senator, becomes a target of the authoritarian Chilean government, which is sending dissidents to concentration camps in the desert. Neruda is forced into exile.
The idiosyncratic tale is narrated intermittently by Gael García Bernal, who plays Oscar Peluchonneau, a police detective obsessively hunting for Neruda. On the surface, it’s a tale of a hunter and a fugitive. The poetic narration, while lyrical, has a distancing effect, but that’s not necessarily a negative in this context: What results is a highly artistic, atmospheric and deftly-written cat-and-mouse game.
For those seeking an informative look at the life of the complex, enigmatic poet, or a deconstruction of Neruda’s literary work, the film could be disappointing. It is far more inventive than illuminating. But for audiences willing to take a meandering and dream-like journey through the corners of an artist’s psyche, it offers plenty to enjoy. Fans of Neruda’s lyrical style will be transported, aided by Sergio Armstrong’s stunning cinematography.
Both lead and supporting performances (particularly Mercedes Morán, drily witty as Neruda’s wife) are superb, even though much is made in the film of Peluchonneau being a supporting character perhaps invented by Neruda.
Luis Gnecco (“No”) is terrific as the larger-than-life poet determined to be a populist hero. Alternately pompous, impish, egotistical and caring, Gnecco conveys a powerful sense of the complicated artist. Bernal, meanwhile, sports a mustache and snappy hat in sneering toady mode, and he’s equally fabulous. He’s vainly comic as the ambitious but none-too-swift policeman determined to nab the poet.
His thoughts, expressed in the voiceover, stitch the scenes together, albeit vaguely. Peluchonneau recounts some biographical details, but nothing feels like real data. The illegitimate son of the founder of the police force, he seeks to both trade on his revered name and establish his own place in history by being the one to imprison Neruda. For his part, Neruda has an abiding fascination with crime fiction and toys with his pursuer by leaving hints and clues as he eludes capture.
The screenplay by Guillermo Calderón (“The Club”) is chock-full of clever dialogue, while production designer Estefania Larrain fills the homes and gathering places of the literati with vivid, resonant details. Though facts are interspersed throughout — Neruda was a railway worker’s son, he had a Dutch ex-wife and ailing young daughter he abandoned — Pablo Larrain is far more interested in Neruda’s art and his symbolic place in the politics of Chile, than in chronology of events and biographic details.
Neruda is described as “the king of love” for his sensual poetry and shown indulging in orgiastic scenes with several admiring women. “Many want to kiss him and hold his hand, sleep in his bed,” the narration informs us. “They say he smells of seaweed. Many women imagine he makes love with a rose between his teeth.”
At the same time, he is a beacon of hope to workers who toil in obscurity. A fellow Communist Party member approaches him at a restaurant and is alternately admiring and excoriating of his elite status. The film raises worthy questions about how a celebrated artist’s iconic status affects his Socialist political convictions.
Is Peluchonneau a symbol of right-wing authoritarianism, or does he represent democracy, as a common man determined to reduce a member of the elite to equal status? When asked if he knows Peluchonneau, Neruda intones, poetically: “He’s my inspector, my persecutor, my phantom in uniform.” For his part, Peluchonneau describes himself thus: “The poet invented me as furious, full of wind.”
The first third of the film moves almost too quickly, a blur of gatherings of left-wing intelligentsia and free spirits. Then it slows to a more deliberate and thoughtful pace when Neruda goes into hiding. The film’s snowy resolution, amid a sprawling landscape, has a hypnotic quality that is gorgeously wrought. Before that, the film appears poised to end a few times. So, when the conclusion finally comes, it is both anti-climactic and intriguingly abstract and elegiac, marked by stunning visuals.
“Neruda” raises thought-provoking questions, offers no easy answers, and does it in with top-notch performances and a cinematic style that is intellectually, artistically and thematically compelling.
11 Best Movies of 2016, From 'La La Land' to 'Queen of Katwe' (Photos)
Sure, "The Americans" and "Better Call Saul" and "The People vs. O.J. Simpson" were engrossing, but the big screen didn't lack for revelation and insight and drama and power and laughs this year.
11. "Southside With You"
"The Obamas on their first date" was the hook for this film, but it's really a story about two intelligent and ambitious people finding a connection and fueling the spark between them. You could remove the history and still have a fine romance.
10. "Queen of Katwe"
In years to come, we will wonder why so few people saw this inspirational sports movie in theaters. In this true-life tale of a young Ugandan girl who became an international chess sensation, director Mira Nair revealed a talent for stirring audience emotion that rivals Spielberg's at this best. More great performances from Lupita N'yongo and David Oyelowo, but keep an eye on African discovery Madina Nalwanga.
Isabelle Huppert gave a pair of extraordinary performances this year, and while "Elle" is a knockout, I ultimately responded more to Mia Hansen-Løve's quiet, powerful examination of a philosophy teacher forced to reassess her life when she loses almost everything that defines her.
Kelly Reichardt's slow-paced films aren't for everyone -- sometimes they're not even for me -- but when she taps into her characters' emotions and frailty, the results can be devastating, as in this tale of Montana women grappling with career and romantic setbacks, in a world that's constantly asking them to do and to be more just to get equal footing.
Modern master Pedro Almodóvar channels his influences (here, Hitchcock and Sirk) and adapts the work of Alice Munro, but the results are 100 percent his own. Few modern filmmakers can flirt with classic Hollywood's outsize emotions without ever slipping into camp or irony, and nobody does it better than this legendary Spanish auteur.
This tale of seduction and double-cross fits so well with the Korean-Japanese conflicts of World War II that you'd never guess it was adapted from a novel about Victorian-era Britain. In an era where narrative twists have been dulled by overuse, director Park Chan-wook pulls the rug out from under us time and again with breathtaking grace and precision.
The perfect symbiosis between artists of different centuries; writer-director Whit Stillman brought Jane Austen's long-forgotten novella "Lady Susan" to the screen, building upon it in a way that reminded us that, with his tales of worldly-wise but heart-foolish young people, he's been doing Austen all along anyway. As a bonus, he gave Kate Beckinsale her greatest role in ages, and she more than met the challenge.
Either the pursuit or the avoidance of love can destroy you, according to this hilariously bleak comedy, but we scuttle along anyway. The first English-language feature from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos ("Dogtooth") portrays romance as an absurd dance we are forced to perform -- but then so does "The Bachelor."
L.A.'s dreamers are usually blocking traffic or getting my coffee order wrong, so it's a testament to writer-director Damien Chazelle that he made me care so deeply about two of them in this valentine to Southern California. The fact that they're played by a singing and dancing Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling admittedly helps. Somewhere Jacques Demy ("The Umbrellas of Cherbourg") is smiling.
Matt Sobel's first film starts out like a city-mouse-country-mouse family reunion comedy and then goes much darker, digging into long-buried secrets and exploring the damage of silence and repression. That he makes all this both suspenseful and mordantly funny reveals his gifts as a writer-director working in tandem with a talented cast and intuitive editor (Jacob Secher Schulsinger, "Force Majeure").
I am loath to use the word "poetic" when describing a film, mostly because when someone else does I either don't believe it or I immediately assume it's describing a movie that's just going to lull me to sleep. But Barry Jenkins' long-awaited sophomore feature was poetic in all the best ways -- deeply humane, emotionally resonant, powerfully empathetic.
"10 Cloverfield Lane," "20th Century Women," "Aquarius," "Arrival," "Cemetery of Splendour," "Christine," "Chronic," "The Clan," "Deadpool," "Doctor Strange," "Don't Breathe," "The Edge of Seventeen," "Elle," "Everybody Wants Some!!," "Hail, Caesar!," "Hell or High Water," "The Invitation," "Little Men," "The Love Witch," "Miss Stevens," "Nocturnal Animals," "Other People," "Paterson," "Pete's Dragon," "Sing Street," "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot," "The Witch"
"I Am Not Your Negro," "O.J.: Made in America," "13th," "Tower," "Weiner," "De Palma," "Kiki," "Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened"
Best animated movies
"Your Name," "April and the Extraordinary World," "Kung Fu Panda 3," "Finding Dory," "Storks," "Zootopia" (with a special mention of "Only Yesterday," a 1991 Studio Ghibli classic that got its first official U.S. release this year)