What an ingenious literary device is the ages-old “cat-and-mouse” ploy, through which the protagonist mercilessly and most cleverly taunts the antagonist to the point of utter despair, and eventual plot resolution. But what happens when a film ingeniously creates adversaries who are seemingly both protagonists, when it’s not altogether clear just whom is chasing whom?
Such is the case with Guillermo Calderon’s provocative “Neruda,” a pseudo biopic of the famed Chilean and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda, directed by Pablo Larrain. The most famous Communist and senator for his party in post-WWII Chile, Neruda (real name Ricardo Reyes, and smartly portrayed here by Luis Gnecco, who bears a striking resemblance to the real-life Neruda) is an extraordinary intellectual on many levels, and on a few more an almost maniacally egotistical rube. His heartfelt political and socio-economic beliefs have made him the voice of the workers and the downtrodden, and the biggest thorn in the side of the Fascist government of Chilean president Gonzalez Videla (Alfredo Castro), who has outlawed Communism and wants Neruda “captured and humiliated.”
Neruda’s poems speak of equality for the masses, but at what cost? One potent scene about two-thirds of the way through the film questions Neruda’s motives. A diehard communist woman, whom we learn cleans homes (and worse) for the upper-class citizenry, approaches the almost godlike Neruda for his autograph, asking: When the revolution comes, will the workers be equal to her social status or his? The poet is speechless; his eventual reply less than truthful.
Neruda’s nemesis in this tale is the beautifully imagined police inspector Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal in a richly inspired performance). Part bumbling oaf, part Sam Spade, part Inspector Javert, Peluchonneau is taunted by Neruda, who has fled underground to avoid the warrant for his arrest on charges of treason. The poet both respects and loathes Peluchonneau, and leaves behind clues in the form of noir crime novels, which Peluchonneau reads with great interest. Further, Neruda walks through the streets of various Chilean cities, hiding in plain sight as it were, conjuring the next move of his pursuer.
Added to the mix is Neruda’s adoring Argentinian wife Delia (the quietly powerful Mercedes Moran). An accomplished artist in her own right, she is devoted to her husband, though theirs is not a love fueled by physical passion. Yes, his words arouse great passion from all who hear them, whether it’s his wife or the masses who fawn over Neruda’s romantic turns of phrase, or a drag queen in a brothel. But for Neruda, passion is the force by which he calculates every move, every word, to ensure his literary immortality.
Reality weaves in and out of Calderon’s script. Garcia Bernal’s inspector is impossibly interesting; he is the son of a prostitute and perhaps a legendary chief of police. Or is he? Gnecco’s Neruda is calculating and intriguing; he’s a bon vivant’s bon vivant. Theirs is a beautifully choreographed dance, punctuated by the sumptuous and most often dimly lit cinematography of Sergio Armstrong. His use of light and shadow and faded colors create a lush noir atmosphere that simply envelops the dialogue.
Calderon and Larrain (also director of the Golden Globe-nominated “Jackie”) have taken great dramatic license with Neruda’s story, and the payoff is more than worth the risk. The thrills are completely manufactured and everyone’s in on it, including the on-screen characters. Rules are sometimes meant to be broken, and in filmmaking such as this, that’s a very good thing.
The Orchard presents a film directed by Pablo Larrain and written by Guillermo Calderon. Rated R (for sexuality, nudity and some language). Running time: 108 minutes. In Spanish and French, with English subtitles. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.