Pablo Larraín’s unconventional biopic Neruda comes hot on the heels of Jackie, which saw Natalie Portman garner an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the title character, although it was actually made before that film. Neruda is a pleasingly left field entry in the genre – indeed, the term ‘biopic’ is perhaps a little misleading as regards this film – and while its eccentricities didn’t always work for me, I found it to be an entertaining and enjoyable piece of work nonetheless.
The film contrives a game of cat and mouse between the poet Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco), who publicly denounces the Chilean president and must go into hiding to escape arrest, and a fictional detective, Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal). Larraín divides screen time between his two leading men, if not equally, then equally enough to build them both up as worthwhile presences. Neruda is shown to be flamboyant and popular but also stubborn and flawed. This works in the film’s favour. Larraín is not interested in claiming that Neruda was a hero, just a flawed and talented man. As Peluchonneau, Bernal brings charisma and dry wit to a roll that is perhaps made to feel more important by the film than it actually is.
The film isn’t afraid to flirt with darkness but most of the drama takes place in a fairly light hearted tone. Larrain uses noir voiceover, and old fashioned rear projection during many of the film’s driving sequences, to bring a jovial sense of fun to proceedings, even when the subject matter is comparatively serious.
Larraín presents the story as a grand chase (albeit one whose political importance is revealed to be questionable) between his two central figures, although the significance of that narrative sometimes gets a little lost in the style. The relaxed tone means that while the film is enjoyable to watch, the central thrust of the story doesn’t have the weight it seems to be searching for. I also felt that although Gnecco and Bernal are on good form, their characters, although interesting on a surface level, weren’t as deeply explored as perhaps they could have been.
As the film goes on, the fleet-of-foot pacing of the earlier stages gives way to a more mannered, focused style, and this suits the conclusion perfectly. There is a sense, as the two characters get closer together, that they have become increasingly single minded in their respective goals, and the story ends with more conviction than it begins with.
Neruda is an interesting film with good performances and a well-established sense of place and time. I felt a little distanced from it as I watched, and unable to connect with the characters the way it seemed to want me to, but that said there are plenty of excellent scenes to enjoy along the way, and an unusual tone that makes the film stand out among other cinematic portrayals of real figures.