Director Pablo Larraín is already having a stellar year with his psychologically adventurous drama ‘Jackie’. So the fact that he has another movie for us is impressive in itself. An unconventional drama about the revolutionary and Nobel-prize winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, this is no mere birth-to-death biopic. Instead, in the spirit of its subject, ‘Neruda’ weaves a tapestry of fact and fantasy that, while occasionally too clever, gets us closer to a literary appreciation (rare for any film).
Neruda (Luis Gnecco), his country’s most famous celebrity, is on the run from right-wing goons when Larraín’s tale picks up in 1948. The poet’s long-suffering wife, Delia (Mercedes Morán), in hiding with him, tires of her husband’s egotistical rants and self-romanticising nature. A champagne communist, Neruda rarely thinks of the people first but has plenty of time for nice clothes and adoring women. But the most fascinating figure here is not Neruda, but the film’s largely fictional predator, Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal, dropping the film in his pocket and running away with it). He’s a fedora-wearing inspector obsessed with detective novels, a comically insignificant doofus whose pursuit of the great man ennobles him.
As Peluchonneau nears his quarry, ‘Neruda’ reminds us of the very real stakes at hand, with a scene spent in the company of Augusto Pinochet, the fascist dictator waiting in the wings. Tonally, ‘Neruda’ is a touch awkward (like the movie as a whole), but Larraín’s endgame set on a snowy mountainside is as abstract as the final moments of ‘The Shining’ – a film that’s also about the life of the mind.