NERUDA is a rhapsody of juxtaposition and conundrum. Pablo Larraín’s film takes historical episodes from a contentious time in the life of Chile’s beloved poet, fervent Communist, elected senator, and creates a fable of suitably Olympian proportions. And, yes, poetry. This is not, however, the sun-dappled poetry of pastoral idylls nor of chivalric love. And yet, in the mutually exclusive logic that is poetry, it is.
This is not a biography. We glean bits and pieces of Neruda’s early life, including his first pair of shoes at age 12, but the story revolves around his fall from political grace in Chile. This would be his public break in 1948 with the populist president whom he had supported, a break that sends Neruda into hiding. This being Neruda, though, he doesn’t just go underground, he also toys with the police detective Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) tasked with bringing him in. An exercise in amusement and political theater that includes sending the detective the detective novels of which Neruda was so fond.
We meet Neruda (Luis Gnecco) in the Senate’s men’s room, where his fellow senators hail him as Caligula after the Communist Party has been outlawed. It’s a suitably puckish start to a film that skewers politics and social pretensions while also getting to the heart of why Neruda was so revered by the downtrodden and the oddball. Yes, he parties where the height of decadence, he would leave the arms of his devoted wife (Mercedes Morán) to frolic in a brothel with Dionysian zeal, both depicted with a palpable gusto by Larraín. He also humbly submits to the admonishments of a peasant putting him in his place about the proletariat struggle, and offers dignity to the transvestite brothel crooner. When that singer is brought in for questioning, the tearful defiance borne of his encounter with the poet, who recited a poem just for him and called him a fellow artist, sums up the power of art to effect change that no dictator can stop.
Gnecco plays Neruda with relish, but also a hint of mystery. Peevish, selfish, spontaneously generous and calculatingly cruel, he is a mass of contradictions that produce genius in him, and passionate loyalty in others, even those who owe it to him the least. As for Bernal’s Peluchonneau, the bastard son of the founder of the Chilean police, he is no mystery at all, but a barely contained combustion of anger and ambition that finds its channel in emulating the father who was embarrassed by his existence.
The plot is solid enough, with the famous and the infamous popping up in various unexpected fashions, but it is the force of the personalities that drive the film. Neruda with an almost paternal indulgence of his pursuer, and Peluchonneau’s vivid desperation for the capture and the acclaim that will come with it mocking him as much as it also drives him.
Is everything you see in NERUDA factually true? Maybe, maybe not. But as a portrait of an artist with imperfections and genius, it has a truth that mere reportage cannot approach. As a portrait of a country grappling with applying abstract ideology to human endeavor, it is unimpeachable.