When you have a figure as huge as Pablo Neruda, it seems odd that a biopic bearing his name as its title has him not as the sole protagonist, but a deuteroganist, a policeman tasked with arresting him his co-star in this film.
But acclaimed Chilean director Pablo Larrain (who also directed Jackie in 2016) clearly reveals the reasons behind this in his latest scintillating film Neruda. Luis Gnecco plays the middle aged, portly poet Neruda, now at the height of his career and undisputedly the king of verses on love. Unfortunately for him, he’s also in the middle of the fascist Chilean government, and as an outspoken communist, along with his immense influence as a symbol of resistance, has a warrant out for his arrest. The man tasked to catch and humiliate the poet is Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal), a policeman who doggedly attempts to smoke him out as Neruda goes into hiding in Chile, prevented from crossing the border to leave.
Neruda is oddly reminiscent of the relationship between Javert and Jean Valjean in the musical classic Les Miserables, and possibly a dozen other types of films where both pursuer and the pursued’s destinie become so inextricably linked that one cannot live without the other. There’s a hypnotic draw to the chase, and even though Neruda is, in most audience’s minds, the undoubted hero, it is Peluchonneau who provides narration in voiceover, and we enter the policeman’s fascinating mind and his character, while also being privy to Neruda’s activities underground.
Even though it is steeped in reality, Larrain brings a strong touch of the romantic to his shots. Neruda is shot in lush dawn and twilight, navigating the liminal spaces between day and night, along with the hedonistic beauty of whorehouses, while Peluchonneau skulks around in the more realistic, clearly defined city, and at times feels even more constrained than Neruda does in his tiny hideout. The contrast in shots might be a metaphor for the differences in both mens’ types of masculinity – Neruda’s unbridled romanticism, and Peluchonneau’s more traditional, dogged hypermaculinity, but these two begin to blur as Neruda pines for freedom and Pelochonneau becomes more and more involved with Neruda’s life.
Pelochonneau is then transformed into a romantic, tragic hero as shaped by Neruda’s actions, determined to fight his fate as a secondary character, and we find ourselves more and more aligned with the ‘antagonist’ of the film. We’re offered an insight not so much into Neruda’s head, but how Neruda might have been viewed. Pelochonneau’s plots to capture the man are foiled time and time again, his efforts frustrated by the trail of hearts and allies Neruda finds in his life. His former wife, for example, nearly betrays him after hooking up with Pelochonneau, but backs out at the last minute, and an entire group of prostitutes help him stay disguised. His current wife Delia (Mercedes Moran), despite her good intentions, suffocates him by having him homestuck, and eventually, she reaches out to Pelochonneau herself, shaking him with her declaration that all their lives merely revolve around the protagonist Neruda.
When the cityscape finally gives way to a lush, snow covered landscape, Neruda is free at last, unbound from the shackles of his refugee status and lets loose a primal howl. In the whiteness of the wilderness, the two men are at last in close proximity and see the other’s face for the first time. Although things don’t end well for one of them, Neruda remains decidedly neutral about where their moralities lie, and ultimately, is a story not about Neruda so to speak, but about the concept of how rivalry makes people who they are, giving them a raison d’etre and driving them towards a kind of inevitable end.
Neruda will be released across UK cinemas on 7 April.