Neruda comes hot on the heels of Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, which was a frontrunner for Oscar glory until La La Land and eventually Moonlight became unstoppable foes. Neruda, not unlike Jackie, takes a unorthodox approach to biopic filmmaking, but it is much more successful in some regards than Jackie, partly down to the fact that its subject is not so much in the public consciousness as the story of JFK and Jackie Kennedy.
The film goes directly into the life of Latin American poet and senator Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) during the late 1940s, when communism was outlawed in Chile and he was on the run, being chased by a fascist police prefect played by Gael García Bernal. Neruda isn’t afraid to leave clues as to where he has been to taunt his pursuer.
It’s not a great film by any means, because Neruda lived quite the life, so to focus solely on this part is a real shame. He befriended the surrealists, fought in the Spanish civil war, and was a world-renowned poet by the age of 20, to name just a few things that are perhaps more interesting than what is portrayed here. Neruda’s final days in 1973 also are fascinating: he died from “heart failure” officially, but many believe was poisoned by a government doctor. Chile was in the middle of a fascist coup d’état at the time, which started on September 11th and was bankrolled by the Nixon administration.
The film’s depiction of the fascist police prefect is frankly bizarre, and clearly just because Bernal was willing to play the role, it was expanded. He narrates the film throughout and his narration becomes increasingly “poetic” as the chase continues. This humanises the cop and makes him a sympathetic character, when in reality he was probably anything but; it also confuses the political leanings of the film.
However, despite some reservations, it’s a fascinating insight into a chapter of Neruda’s life and the political and intellectual power of poetry. The performances from Bernal and Gnecco are solid, and Gnecco is a dead ringer for the real Neruda. It’s not the first time Neruda has been a subject of a film: Michael Radford’s much-celebrated Il Postino tells a fictionalised version of what happened in the aftermath of the events shown in this film.
The disc is fairly barebones except for an 11-minute interview with Larraín and Bernal, which was shot during their UK promotional junket.