Santiago de Chile, 1948. The government of Gabriel González Videla prohibits communism in the country. Ironically enough, the Partido Comunista was part of the alliance that named Videla president two years before. Already a popular and celebrated poet, Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) was a senator at the time. Just as the ban is passed, the government appoints young detective Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) to arrest the writer. The film becomes a cat-and-mouse chase that ends up dismantling Neruda’s personal and professional relationships, but also awakens the survival instinct of a writer who had lived closer to the intellectual bourgeoisie of Santiago than to the oppressed working class that fed the party he represented.
Larraín had the ambition to shoot his visually richest film: an homage to mid-century cinema with over-the-top lighting, dialogue replacement, and faux backgrounds in the car scenes. A strategy that doesn’t fully succeed as these scenes only work as bumpers to a standard, correct filmmaking style: the one Larraín has clearly mastered throughout his filmography. Neruda is carefully shot and crafted, but seems like a shy attempt to formally defy his previous work.
“In this story, we all spin around the leading character,” whispers Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán). Aside from its political slant, the film’s most interesting layer is its introspection on protagonists and secondary roles: one that even started before the shooting. As soon as the project was announced, speculation arose on whether or not García Bernal (previously a lead in Larraín’s No) was going to play Pablo Neruda, whose physique and features are completely different. The role of Neruda was appointed to Gnecco, a TV star in Chile, who falls into mimicry as he portrays the charming Neruda: a man who could, through his words, captivate a woman, or the whole country alike. Peluchonneau, on the other side, is a character trying to build a name: one that seemed ready to be judged by History and perhaps, someday, portrayed in a film. He expressively rejects becoming the secondary role in this story, and García Bernal fulfils this desire, oozing appeal and developing a character that challenges one of the quintessential Chilean historical figures. The plot also translates into an acting confrontation: Gnecco imitates a person; Gael builds one.
Neruda seems to be comfortable being called a communist and a traitor by Videla’s government. While being prosecuted, he now faces the causes he once defended in the congress, and also rediscovers the fascinating geography of his native country. The last scene of the film unexpectedly transports the audience to a more physical confrontation handled like a Tarantino western, perhaps the most audacious and promising decision of the whole process.
Larraín has constructed a filmography that reveals a deep commitment to explore the socio-political transition Chile experienced in the second half of the 20th century, but it is his style that seems to be stuck in a comfort zone, especially after considering the bold strategies promulgated by his closest precedent, documentarian Patricio Guzmán. Neruda feels like a Hollywood awards-driven product. It could possibly have become one if it weren’t for Larraín’s integrity and bravery to denounce the interventionism of the US government, including the systematic assassination of hundreds of red activists throughout Latin America.
The film’s most touching moment takes place in a brothel where Pablo is hiding, in a drag queen’s austere rendition of “La Sandunga.” Shortly after, the performer is interrogated about the poet’s location. She tells the police she will always protect the writer: the one who demanded her songs to be whispered to his ear; the one who talked to her artist-to-artist, human-to-human. Neruda will remain the closest link to the Chilean soul, secluded by the Andes and by a troubled past.