Who was Pablo Neruda? A poet? Politician? Communist? Fugitive? Jorge Luis Borges, when asked for his opinion of him, remarked that he was “a very nice poet, a very fine poet, I don’t admire him as a man, I think of him as a very mean man”. Such was the complexity and divisiveness of a man who in native Chile was held as both a saviour and a traitor. Pablo Larrain’s biopic, if it can be called one, picks up from the point at which all of this comes to head.
It’s 1948. Gabriel Gonzalez Videla is president of Chile. He has a tide of support from the left and the hugely popular Neruda as his campaign manager. As he takes office, however, Videla stabs Neruda and the communist party in the back, issuing the infamous law of Permanent Defence of Democracy which effectively banned them from electoral lists and, in 1949, the imprisonment of striking workers in concentration camps. The film opens in the heat of this political frenzy; cameras crackle, voices blur as we follow Neruda on his way to deliver the ‘I accuse’ speech that would earn him the world’s attention, as well as a warrant for his arrest in Chile.
The historical context that embeds and situates the film isn’t evident from its opening moments, even if it does become clear what lies at the heart of the issue in Chile. Director Larrain seems to recognise the density of his terrain and instead of overstitching the biopic to Che-like standards of detail, he construes Neruda as a film that, much like the man himself, has a larger than life mythology surrounding it. At the centre of this tale is the narration of detective Óscar Peluchonneau, played by a tweedy Gael Garcia Bernal. We don’t see him until about twenty minutes in, but he guides the film’s opening stages with an omniscience that grows into a persona.
As we get to know Neruda, so more is revealed about the personality of Òscar, the prefect appointed to arrest, as Neruda becomes more obsessed with his pursuit. He is more a commentator on Chilean politics than a cop, discussing political divisions and bureaucracy as he chases Neruda across Chile in all its glory. It grows into something more than a chase pretty soon, wandering into existential territory of identity and ideology. Neruda’s descent into deeper layers of hiding provide the best parts of the film, in its middle act, where we are treated to gloriously rendered landscapes, chases and pockets of Chilean society that are given the time to be explored.
The second act keeps things the right side of strange, promoting curiosity, but the third act drives the narrative across the line. The film shifts deeper into the questions it was posing, bringing with it a poeticism that begins to take hold of the film in all of its aspects – visually, musically and in the more exaggeratedly emotional parts of the film. It is at once a creative peak and the biggest flaw of the film. On the one hand, the cinematography is stellar, renewing the film in an almost artificial array of colours that lend it a fresh energy and vibrancy. The problem is that the film doesn’t so much grasp at the issues it raises as it probes at them. It sets up several dynamics, entering around Neruda, moving between him, his people, the politics and his homeland, but it ultimately leaves these unaddressed even though the film has set itself up to answer them. The final chase of the third act runs overlong, and it’s ending picks up the scraps in a confusing ‘tie all the loose ends’ fashion. It’s shame, because Larrain had the heft and ingenuity to bring something truly special to Neruda, just as he did with last year’s excellent Jackie. Unlike that, however, he didn’t seem to see it all the way through.