Gael Garcia Bernal, Luis Gnecco, Alfredo Castro, Pablo Derqui, Mercedes Moran
The Orchard (USA)
Screened during the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes Film Festival and now Chile's entry into the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, Neruda reunites Gael Garcia Bernal with director Pablo Larrain (No) is a slippery slope of a biopic in that it it plays loose, at times very loose, with fact and instead creates a rather Nerudian cat-and-mouse adventure set within Neruda's world yet a story all its own.
Garcia Bernal portrays Oscar Peluchonneau, a police offer tasked with arresting Neruda after the Chilean Senator accuses the government of national betrayal. Neruda is impeached and and Peluchonneau directs his men to "catch and humiliate" the flaunting Neruda.
It won't be easy.
Neruda, played to perfection by Luis Gnecco, half-heartedly goes into hiding. Peluchonneau gives chase, though Larrain's narrative twists and turns provide interesting and demanding fodder for moviegoers who may, if not paying attention, struggle to discern what is real, what is imagined and what inspires it all. Gnecco, a Chilean comedian who also worked with Larrain on No, makes for a convincing Neruda by capturing both the poet's physicality and the magnetism that made him a controversial target for fascists due to his popularity with the Chilean common folks. However, Neruda was known to be rather controversial himself, a man who identified with common folks but bathed in the adoration of those people and who clung to the finer things that he felt he'd earned.
While Neruda arguably yet appropriately centers around Gnecco's Neruda, the film's satisfying core wraps around Gael Garcia Bernal's bromantic spin on Peluchonneau, whose hapless ways and near incompetence are played with just the right touches of seriousness and light comedy by Bernal. Bernal is the narrator of the story, yet one can never completely trust the self-aggrandizing Peluchonneau's narration as he is convinced of his greatness as everyone else is of his idiocy. It's a tremendous performance, humane and rich and comical without an ounce of caricature.
Among the supporting players, one must mention the fine Mercedes Moran, whose turn as Neruda's wife is deceptive in its straightforward presentation. A woman born into wealth who is unapologetically appreciative of said wealth, she is played with complicated layers in what could have been turned easily into a one-note performance.
With hints of film noir, especially in Guillermo Calderon's stylized dialogue and Bernal's impeccable delivery, Neruda is an occasionally flawed yet fascinating film that is both substantial and stylized. While it doesn't necessarily paint an authentic portrait of Neruda, one can't help but think it still draws us closer to a compelling figure whose death, reported to have been by prostate cancer but likely caused by an unknown third party, was grieved by hundreds of thousands even as such expressions were forbidden by a growing into power Pinochet.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic