Directors Damien Chazelle (La La Land) and Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) have received a ton of attention for their films this year, but there’s another director who has had an equally newsworthy movie season but has flown under many moviegoers’ radars. In fact, Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín has two movies in theaters right now: the austere and striking Jackie about Jackie Kennedy, and now the equally impressive Neruda, a character study of the renowned poet/political activist from Larraín’s home country.
While much of Larraín’s work is based on historical fact, he never aims for straight-ahead docudrama or biopic. His Oscar-nominated 2012 film, No, based on a Chilean political advertising campaign during the strongman rule of Pinochet in the ’80s, was shot with 40-year-old technology so that it would look like it was indeed a TV commercial from that era. He used some of that retro approach on Jackie, an exploration of the first lady’s emotional state in the hours and days following JFK’s assassination.
With Neruda, he offers a stylized riff on the ’40s melodrama and gumshoe-detective story, casting Gael Garcia Bernal as Oscar Peluchonneau, a fedora-sporting investigator chasing Neruda (Luis Gnecco) — a Communist Party member of the senate in the late ’40s who has run afoul of the ruling government and now is up for arrest — across Santiago and into the Chilean wilderness.
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In essence, Larraín tells two stories entwined as one: The first is of the aging poet and political firebrand, the other of a young lackey of the state (and the story’s narrator) whose happiness (and certainly career advancement) hinges on locking Neruda inside a prison camp in the merciless Chilean desert.
While Neruda’s poetry is heard, Larraín doesn’t get involved in showing its creation, though he does show its powerful, cathartic effect on many ordinary Chileans. But all of that takes a back seat to Larraín’s larger themes of freedom versus tyranny, expression versus repression.
There is a streak of dark humor that runs through Neruda, especially with the grasping Peluchonneau, and in the way Larraín has chosen to shoot the film. The passing backgrounds in moving cars look noticeably fake, just as they would in films from the story’s time period.
Anyone wanting the basic life bullet points on Pablo Neruda is better off looking at Wikipedia. Instead, Larraín has served us another ambitious and artful slice of historical artifice.
In Spanish with English subtitles
Exclusive: Angelika Dallas
☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: Pablo Larraín
Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Pablo Derqui, Luis Gnecco
Rated: R (sexuality, nudity, strong language)
Running time: 107 min.