UK Release Date: 10th July 2017
Runtime: 108 minutes
Director: Pablo Larraín
Writer: Guillermo Calderón
Starring: Luis Gnecco, Gael García Bernal, Mercedes Morán, Michael Silva, Gabriel González Videla
Synopsis: A Communist poet and senator denounces the Chilean government in the aftermath of the Second World War and is forced to go into hiding, pursued by a determined detective.
Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín has quickly established himself as one of the most prolific voices in world cinema, delivering three films in the space of two years. He took on American politics earlier this year with Natalie Portman starring biopic Jackie and now the film he shot before that one, Neruda, is arriving for home viewing in the UK. It’s a far more unconventional take on historical subject matter, providing a hard-boiled twist on post-war politics in Larraín’s native country. This is a film that doesn’t always hold together, but has thematic invention to spare.
Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is a poet and Communist senator unafraid to speak out against the leadership of President Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro). After an inflammatory speech, he is forced to go into hiding with his wife Delia (Mercedes Morán) for fear that he will be imprisoned – or worse. The government sends police chief Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) to track Neruda down and, given the hints the poet seems to be leaving behind, it appears that he’s enjoying the thrill of the chase.
Neruda is a very unusual take on the historical biopic. Jackie was daring in its subversion of the traditional biographical structure and Neruda pushes that a step further by framing the action through the eyes of Bernal’s unreliable narrator. Bernal holds the film together with a noir-esque, hard-boiled voiceover that is wryly amusing and inventive, going beyond the simple exposition usually provided by these voiceovers. There’s a real enigma to Bernal’s performance and he’s inscrutable throughout, as a worthy counterpoint to Luis Gnecco’s much bigger portrayal of the extroverted title character.
Larraín’s relentlessly unusual narrative choices give the film a strange rhythm, with the traditional breakneck speed of a detective thriller eschewed in favour of a more sluggish approach to story. This prevents much tension from being invested into the film, which has long swathes of time where nothing seems to be happening. We spend a lot of time with Gnecco without ever delving into Neruda’s psyche, whereas Bernal gets far more space to imbue his character with nuance. Questions are raised about the nature of storytelling and the ways in which we construct our lives that are compelling and far more intriguing than a straightforward politically-themed drama would be.
The intriguing thematic flourishes of Neruda are aided by Larraín’s deeply impressive directorial eye and jaw-dropping cinematography from Sergio Armstrong. There are magic hour shots that bring to mind the most visually impressive scenes in The Revenant and use of lighting that is highly unorthodox and deeply impressionistic. This could easily have been a film about people chattering in dark, dimly-lit rooms, but Larraín transforms it into an inventive and artful piece of work.
Neruda is a deeply original film and one that shoots for a completely different portrayal of a historical figure to what viewers might expect. It’s certainly formally and visually audacious, which gives it its raison d’être, but it’s also lacking in logic and occasionally has an ill-disciplined meander into an unnecessary narrative cul-de-sac. There are interesting themes lurking beneath the surface and, when they are teased out, the film comes alive. But it’s unfortunately never alive for very long.
None available for review.
Pop or Poop?
There haven’t been very many films this year as outright unusual in their approach to storytelling as Neruda and Pablo Larraín certainly cannot be accused of being a director who is simply seeking to tick the biopic boxes. Gael Garcia Bernal delivers a complex performance as the film’s unreliable narrator and there’s a surprising, effective dose of comedy that runs through his voiceover.
Unfortunately, Neruda doesn’t have a plot or characters to match up to what it’s doing from a cinematic craft perspective. Despite the more poetic moments, it emerges as something slightly unsatisfying.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
Neruda is available on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD in the UK from Monday, courtesy of Network Releasing.