Surprises always come at the end of Pablo Larraín’s films, when everything suddenly comes together and the audience sits in the cinema feeling both illuminated and floored. “Neruda” is no different, representing the director at his stunning best with a work of such cleverness and beauty, alongside such power, that it’s hard to know how to parcel out praise: script, cinematography, art direction and performances all vie for kudos and awards, though the film’s placement in Directors’ Fortnight rather than competition at Cannes is a major head-scratcher. “Neruda” is not a biopic but an invention informed by biography, conjuring a richly detailed investigator with notions of self-grandeur who’s hunting the famed leftist writer-politician in 1948 Chile. Sales will be vigorous, and international success practically a certainty.
Titling the film “Neruda” might be seen as a marketing drawback, since some will imagine a more straightforward look at the poet’s life, although those familiar with Larraín’s work know that’s never been his style. Instead, he deftly mixes fiction with a form of truth, presenting Neruda (Luis Gnecco) not as the passionate romantic of his verse but a champagne communist very much tied to passing pleasures. Yet what Larraín makes clear by the finale is that who the artist is (any artist) is less important than what they inspire: to give voice to the powerless, and arouse the senses, is the ultimate gift to the masses.
Not only do Larraín and Guillermo Calderón, his screenwriter from “The Club,” create a mirror Neruda (the director accurately describes his film as “Nerudian”), but they invent police prefect Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), a doggedly determined inspector on the poet’s trail who’s something of a less-bumbling Clouseau, with perhaps a little Hergé and a lot of Neruda. Every bit the film’s protagonist as much as the poet, Peluchonneau — the name does exist, but its fanciful evocation is ideal for the character (“peluche” in both Spanish and French refers to stuffed animal toys) — serves as both Neruda’s nemesis and his creation, an ineffective plainclothesman assisting in the legend of the great man’s persecution.
Neruda was a politician (and diplomat) in 1948, when President Gabriel Gonzalez Videla (Alfredo Castro) betrayed his leftist roots and allied himself with the war on communism. As Chile’s most famous Stalinist, Neruda lost his high-powered protectors and went into hiding with his aristocratic Argentinian wife Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), assisted by members of the Communist Party far more attuned to the hardships of the working class than the poet himself.
That’s when Peluchonneau comes in, though he was already heard in voice-over before viewers know who’s speaking. Of course voice-over is one of the most overused elements in contemporary cinema, rarely asking the audience to question the narrator’s reliability, but Larraín demands our skepticism from the moment the voice’s identity is revealed. The son of a prostitute and possibly the late chief of police, Peluchonneau is determined to be no one’s secondary character, making him a brilliant Nerudian creation (a detective who loves detective fiction) whose function is to burnish the poet’s reputation in exile — a status widely publicized in France by Pablo Picasso (Emilio Gutiérrez Caba), Neruda’s fellow champagne communist.
As conceived by Larraín and Calderón, Neruda is more a casual hedonist than a genuine sensualist, in loving sympathy with his quietly solid wife, yet theirs isn’t a demonstrative relationship, even in private. Instead, the effect of Neruda’s writing on others is what constitutes his greatness: a beautifully emotional scene has a drag queen from a brothel explain to Peluchonneau how Neruda arouses passion and a strong sense of self-worth, though the poet as man rather than writer is distinctly less inspirational.
The film constantly plays with artificiality and moments of abrupt realism, serving as a reminder that the Communist Party’s struggles in Chile had very real meaning for the mistreated working class (there’s also a brief Pinochet cameo, as the commandant of a concentration camp). So while an air of play-acting surrounds Neruda and Peluchonneau, as well as several of the politicians seen in their privileged eyries, it receives a dose of reality from, for example, the character of Álvaro Jara (Michael Silva), Neruda’s Party-assigned minder trying to keep his charge one step away from Peluchonneau’s grasp.
All the performances are outstanding: Gnecco plays Neruda with a sense of entitled vanity, which occasionally slips to reveal the character’s idealism and solidarity. As Delia, Morán does an enormous amount with just her presence, using her warmth-giving smile as protection for both herself and her husband. But perhaps it’s García Bernal who makes the greatest impression, since his is by far the most carefully constructed role. Humorous, straight-faced and channeling any number of noir detectives with a post-modern twist that finally gives that misused concept a good name, the actor quite simply shines, once again proving himself one of the smartest performers around.
Equally worthy of celebration is the lensing of Larraín’s regular d.p. Sergio Armstrong, sumptuously gliding through rooms and landscapes in long sweeps of meticulously choreographed movement. Rear projection in car scenes reinforce the artificiality of the Peluchonneau element, yet rarely has that oft-clunky device been used with such mannered elegance. Production design and art direction is likewise rich, and music, with excerpts from Penderecki, Grieg and Ives offer suitably lush accompaniment. “Neruda” doesn’t have the anger of “The Club” or “Post-Mortem,” but its emotional grace makes it every bit as powerful.