Director: Pablo Larraín
Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Luis Gnecco, Mercedes Morán, Diego Muñoz
Running time: 107 minutes
Release date: April 7th
No other genre in recent years has mass-produced such a large number of bland, forgettable films than that of the biopic. These films have, by and large, only served a single purpose and that is to provide actors the opportunity to receive some precious award recognition. Often this is at the expense of format, both visually and narratively. This is why the portrayal of someone like Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, whose life was equal parts fascinating, tragic and important, ends up being a “for your consideration” advertisement for Benedict Cumberbatch.
Fortunately, they are some filmmakers who confront the conventions and apparent limitations of the biopic to create something that is challenging. For the second time this year, after his English language debut Jackie, Chilean director Pablo Larraín has shown in his latest film Neruda, about the famed Chilean poet and Communist politician Pablo Neruda, that he is more interested in exploring form and ideas than providing a simple retelling of a famous person’s life.
Like Jackie, Neruda focuses on a brief period in the life of the titular character. Here it is the year or so period in the late 40s after Chile’s president Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro), has bowed down to Cold War pressure and sided with the Americans and begins a crackdown on union leaders and members of the Communist party. Neruda (Luis Gnecco), a Communist Senator who voted to bring Videla to power, sees this as a betrayal and publicly denounces the president. Threatened with arrest, Neruda goes on the run and the government begins attempts to catch and discredit the popular poet, hiring police inspector Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) to head the manhunt.
It is with the character of Peluchonneau that Larraín and screenwriter Guillermo Calderón lay siege to the idea of validity of the majority of biopics. Not only is Peluchonneau a fictional character, he and many of the other characters are aware of this fact. “This is when I enter. A blank page” he muses in voice over as he first appears on screen. Dressed in a sharp and fedora and framed in silhouette, his initial appearance is more reminiscent of film noir than biopic, adding to the sense of invention that surrounds him. This is further enhanced by Larraín’s stylistic choices such as obviously fake back projection and locations changing during conversations.
It is to Larraín and Calderón’s great credit that Neruda never descends into an exercise in self-aware smugness. This is down to the overall sense of playfulness that encompasses the film. This is established in a early scene where Neruda and fellow Senators are having a debate in what appears to be a lavish room, only for it be revealed, in a Buñuelian twist, that the debate has been taking place in a bathroom. Talk about politics going down the crapper.
It would be foolish to confuse the film’s playfulness for a lack of sincerity. The film is quite humourous at times, particularly with the development of Peluchonneau who turns out to be more Inspector Clouseau than Sam Spade, even being described at one point as being “Half moron, half idiot”. The dark colour palette belies the early warning signs of the rise of the horrific periods in Chile’s history, made clear in a brief scene in a concentration camp that is overseen by one Augusto Pinochet.
Neruda is a film that directly confronts the expectations of the audience and subverts them in an entertainingly imaginative way. Between this and Jackie, two films that are both similar and different in many ways, Larraín shows just how uninventive and risk-adverse the standard biopic really is.