Pablo Larrain (No, The Club) continues his winning streak of visceral, thoughtful dramas with this mighty “anti-biopic” (as he himself has called it), bolstered by patient direction and two remarkable central performances.
Neruda largely revolves around the efforts of an inspector, Oscar Peluchoneau (Gael Garcia Bernal), to bring down the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet (Luis Gnecco) as he heads into exile due to his Communist leanings.
Far from a doting hagiography (though such should hardly be expected from a filmmaker as remarkable as Larrain), Neruda provide a well-rounded and unexpectedly humorous examination of the title figure as a human being in all of his challenging complexity, an admirable intellect for sure but also woefully, hilariously arrogant and as such far away from the romanticised image some may have of him.
Gnecco is an absolute revelation in the central role, managing to both live up to and reinvent the myth, though it’s arguably the ever-reliable Bernal who runs away with the picture, even in spite of his character essentially being a fabrication. Bernal’s committed work, however, not only brings him to vibrant life but makes him feel an unerringly vital piece of the narrative puzzle.
As will be unsurprising to anyone who’s ever seen a Larrain movie before, the filmmaker keenly toys with genre expectation by riffing extravagantly on the nature of narrative and filmmaking; a mid-film discussion between Peluchoneau and Neruda’s wife Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán) particularly highlights both the artifice of Peluchoneau as a character and also his destiny to be a “supporting player” to the effervescent Neruda.
Concluding with a startlingly visceral showdown in the snow, Neruda’s greatest strength just might be its ability to confound formula, while eking remarkable work out of its two central performers. Its stature as a history lesson may be blunted slightly by its ambitious deference to big ideas, but it’s still a filmmaking clinic on how to adapt challenging, controversial figures to the big screen.
Neruda is in US cinemas December 16th and UK cinemas January 6th