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‘Neruda’ Review: Gael García Bernal Pursues Poetry and Politics

Pablo Larrain (”Jackie“) takes a surrealist approach to poet Pablo Neruda’s public and artistic lives in this non-traditional biopic

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.