If Pablo Larraín’s Jackie was etched as cold, clinical but compassionate newsprint, the tone of the Chilean director’s second recent biographical offering, Neruda, is lavished in the vivid, vibrant flare of an eye-popping storybook. The two films premiered just four months apart – in June and September 2016 – but Neruda has none of the barbed, raw emotion of Natalie Portman’s achingly fragile performance. Instead, the flamboyance and self-importance of the eponymous communist senator and renowned poet on whom Larraín trains his skilled eye makes for a blackly comic retelling of a dark chapter in his nation’s past.
From an opening scene in which a Senate meeting takes place in an ornately decorated gentlemen’s toilet as Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) simultaneously relieves himself and explains his left-wing stance, it is immediately apparent that here we have a film acutely – and indeed purposefully – aware of its self-deluding sense of grandiosity. The same applies to police inspector Oscar Peluchonneau, who, later in proceedings will be aptly described as “half moron, half idiot.” He is not a fool in the Shakespearean Dogberry sense of slapstick law and order but Gabriel Garcia Bernal’s wonderfully dim-witted performance, typified by a constant squinting of the eyes which aims to convey seriousness and bravado but instead cries confusion, is of a young man – the son of a prostitute and uncertain father – in a deep crisis of identity and self.
“This is where I enter,” says he, having already narrated the first scenes. Determined to make his mark, and not content with being a supporting part in the story, Peluchonneau invents himself from a blank page. Deemed a traitor, a menace to society, and worse, as a rogue activist writer Pablo is caught in two minds whether to flee or resist. Or in fact whether he wants to be caught – to make a point. Dragging his heels somewhat, the mouse in this situation toys with a cat often left chasing his own tail. Larraín plays with the cop-fugitive dynamic to create a kinship of sorts between the two men who each display characteristics we may not consider sympathetic.
With round-ups, arrests and a young Augusto Pinochet plying his trade in a desert camp, the harsher realities of the post Second World War-setting of Neruda concerns itself with Chile’s history through fragmented allusion but the film’s focus lies with two men more selfishly concerned by their own legacy, making their own mark on the annals of time. For all his theatrical verbosity and outward appearance of philanthropy, how much interaction, genuine knowledge and sincere care for the downtrodden does Neruda possess? It is ironic that a woman, at the point of falling down drunk, provides the most lucid, clear-sighted indictment of the liberal bourgeoisie’s high and mighty inefficiency in dealing with what really matters.
Aesthetically, Neruda is more akin to Larraín’s past films No and The Club thanks to collaboration once again with cinematographer Sergio Armstrong. Rich blues, browns and maroons give a luxurious sheen, bright white light shines in through windows as we look into the past that is created before our eyes and, with a wink and a nod to classic noir, cars drive in front of still screens and a sinister score rumbles along seriously in contrast to the laughable leading men. Like Jackie, Neruda contemplates the true power of words and though the pen may indeed be mightier than the sword without concrete action and empathy they ring hollow.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens