Directed by Pablo Larraín. Starring Gael García Bernal, Luis Gnecco, Mercedes Morán, Emilio Gutiérrez Caba. (2017, R, 107 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Feb. 17, 2017
The American audience likely didn’t need a cheat sheet for Jackie, Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy in the aftermath of JFK’s assassination, but the same audience could probably use a quick Wikipedia skim before diving into Neruda, his second dalliance with an icon released in the same calendar year. Even the rarer set that loves poetry and can recite by heart, “Tonight I can write the saddest lines,” might have a blind spot when it comes to the poet Pablo Neruda’s significant history as a political figure.
Larraín’s film throws the viewer straight into the thrum, as the newly elected president Gabriel González Videla outlaws Communism and Neruda (Gnecco) is forced underground. Gael García Bernal plays chief of police Óscar Peluchonneau, tasked with hunting Neruda down; he also narrates, with a film noir detective’s disdain for wealth and privilege, both of which this “man of the people” most assuredly enjoys. It’s a cat and mouse story – only it’s Neruda who so often wears the smirk of the cat who caught the cream, while the detective resembles nothing so much as a rat with a mustache.
The subtitles move fast; if you have to decide between pictures and words, choose the pictures: This is a gorgeously composed and shot (by Sergio Armstrong) film, languid and dreamy with purple winter twilights, solar flares, and bordello reveries. The story takes on shades of a darkly comic Western in its final stretch, anticipating a final showdown between Neruda and Peluchonneau as the former attempts to escape through a mountain pass into Argentina. The pulse quickens, but Larraín’s commitment to a poetic aesthetic remains. This is a strange and beguiling film to the end.