Director Pablo Larraín’s acclaimed recent film Jackie starred Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy following the assassination of her husband, US president JFK. With Neruda it seems that Larraín — who also directed 2012’s powerful anti-Pinochet drama No — is on more familiar territory, focusing this time on quite a different political figure: the Chilean Nobel prize-winning poet and Communist senator Pablo Neruda.
Luis Gnecco stars as Neruda as he goes on the run following the ban on the Communist Party in 1948 by Chilean President Gabriel González Videla. Neruda is hunted by the young detective Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) who tries to earn his stripes in his pursuit of the famous fugitive.
Despite the danger he is in, Neruda still enjoys the trappings of his fame and the perks of office. He regales fans with recitals of his work, including one of his most famous and best-loved poems, “Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines”. Neruda takes inspiration from his experiences going into exile in writing his great work Canto General, and the film beautifully demonstrates his commitment to his art even in times of great difficulty.
Neruda is a complex and contradictory character: difficult to like at times but with a sense of playfulness that shapes his encounters, not least with Peluchonneau and his other adversaries. He is passionate about his art, weaving poetry through his interactions with his admirers, comrades and even those who want to see him “captured and humiliated”.
Peluchonneau is another multi-faceted character. He is in pursuit of a hugely popular public figure, but is dealing with his own personal struggles. Watching him hunt down Neruda is like watching two dancers trying to work out their moves in increasingly surreal ways. They develop an increasing fascination — near obsession — with one another.
Alongside strong performances by Gnecca (who bears a startling resemblance to Neruda) and García Bernal, Mercedes Morán is impressive as Neruda’s wife Delia del Carril, who was an accomplished visual artist in her own right.
The cinematography beautifully showcases the cities and landscapes of Chile, bringing to life the salons of Santiago and the landscapes of the Andes, where Neruda eventually escapes over the border into Argentina.
This is not a biopic. Attempting to sum up an artist and political activist like Neruda in an hour and three quarters would be near impossible. Neruda is part-police chase, part-road movie and an enjoyable insight into the life of a remarkable figure.