Ricardo Eliecer Neftali Reyes Basoalto – known to his associates and the Chilean intelligentsia by the pen name of Pablo Neruda – was a figure of some repute in the country’s government after the fires of World War II had subsided. An outstanding individual in Chilean history, it was inevitable that a film would be made covering his accomplishments and hardships. Many years later, that film has come along courtesy of Pablo Larraín Matte, who in 2016 created a filmic account of Neruda’s exile from Chile, while simultaneously making his English language debut with the critically acclaimed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis bopic, Jackie. As a Chilean himself, there is no doubt that his work is one of passion for a historical figure. How he and writer Guillermo Calderon go about portraying that passion, however, is rather questionable.
Visually, the film is inviting, even strikingly done. In the more colourful scenes there is a rich palette of hues dominated by blues and pinks which merge together to imbue the film with an almost 80s visual aesthetic. It is a film that benefits from taking on the veneer of an ‘older’ appearance, and it benefits the movie’s atmosphere a great deal. The cinematography on display, offered up by Sergio Armstrong, gives us a handful of striking shots that lean strongly into the crime genre undercurrent that runs throughout the film and some inventiveness is displayed in scenes where characters converse, displaying the same conversation from multiple changing angles – and, rarely, changing locations. On a technical level the production is solid, and the atmosphere of late 40s/early 50s Chile on the cusp of political upheaval is palpable. Small cameos from historical figures such as Picasso, who Neruda sends one of the manuscripts of his poetic powerhouse Canto General, lend an increased sense of authenticity to the narrative – but with regards to the actual writing, the film ventures into strange territory.
While perhaps initially marketing itself as a sort of character examination, the film veers into a semi-mythical take on Neruda’s existence and exploits, combined with elements of film noir. Instead of focusing directly on the events of the poet’s life, the narrative revolves around a cat-and-mouse thrust involving Neruda (Luis Gnecco) and his wife Delia (Mercedes Moran) staying a step ahead of model policeman, Clouseau imitator and determined investigator Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal), all while the story moves ever closer to his dramatic flight across the Andes mountains into the relative safety of Argentina. The opening minutes of the film do a serviceable job of establishing the general situation in Chile and it is not without seriousness in portraying the titular poet’s exile, but the product suffers in deciding to play somewhat fast and loose with history.
The film purports to be about the life and times of this troubled writer, but it takes a puzzling turn into the genre of detective fiction, focusing just as equally, if not more so, on the character invented for the sake of this film. Oscar Peluchonneau has no known historical basis, a suited, squinting spook conjured up for the sake of having a fulcrum around which the movie’s story revolves. Indeed, certainly in the advertising department, he takes a front row seat – Bernal’s name is billed before Gnecco’s, and Oscar stands front and centre on the posters. Perhaps his creation was a narrative necessity to give Neruda something resembling a foil, a definitive ‘antagonist’ who acts as a vehicle to drive the story onward – the film certainly goes out of its way to portray him as the exact opposite of the man he pursues, at least. He is a creature of procedure, rules and regulations, starkly contrasted with Neruda’s hodgepodge of almost urbane free-spiritedness.
The idea of having such a tale use a fictional character as a basis is serviceable, but what could be a compelling if unconventional examination of the trials and tribulations of a national icon is instead transformed into a deadly serious Pink Panther-esque caper. That is not to say that this approach renders the existence of this fictional character completely pointless. The approach comes across as an admirable attempt to differentiate the film from typical historical fiction and the writing does its best to try and make its fabricated detective into something more than a cipher or a blank slate for the audience to project themselves through. He is not without substance, and even a bit of development – one of the first things he makes apparent is his dislike of communists, but as the film progresses he develops a peculiar attachment to Neruda and his creations.
He peruses his target’s poetry, and gradually develops a curious fascination for him that runs at odds with his constant railing against the ‘reds’. He comes to engage in introspection and question himself as the hunt continues and he immerses himself in the ‘myth’ of Neruda, but this approach to the man also serves to harm his character as much as it helps develop Oscar’s. Rarely is Neruda regarded or portrayed as anything else other than a creative savant, an almost legendary entity capable of inspiring limitless passion, respect and adoration in those who surround him. This depiction is doubtlessly intentional, but it also serves to make some scenes involving Oscar’s blossoming fascination and fear of the man appear outright laughable in their execution, and wonder whether the film is content simply with tooting its own horn.
Additionally, the films pacing, for its rather brief 107-minute running time, is quite easy-going, this sensation being somewhat amplified by the wry narration that Peluchonneau freely throws out hither and thither even in conversations he isn’t present for, as though he’s For those who harbour a genuine interest for the period of history covered in the film, too, the oddly unconventional take on the genre may serve to alienate those who were expecting a more by-the-numbers representation of Neruda’s life. It is also a slight waste of a casting choice – Gnecco genuinely shines as the persecuted poet, and even his appearance is almost a spitting image of him. His performance is admirable, but he only gets so much time to work his magic.
Neruda is far from incompetently made, but it is perhaps too misguided in attempting to provide an inventive approach to the genre of historical flim. Its strong performances and visual solidity cannot disguise the often lacking nature of its narrative. Larrain’s effort to make a so-called “anti-biopic” is a commendable one, but going against the grain results in a final product that is well-intentioned and well-made, but in need of much more substance.