Gael García Bernal, Luis Gnecco, Mercedes Moran
The last time I saw Gael García Bernal on screen, he was being chased around the Mexican borderlands by a crazed American right-winger in Jonás Cuarón’s God-awful Desierto (2015). This time out, in Pablo Larraín‘s Neruda it’s García Bernal himself who’s doing the pursuing.
While Desierto was a simple (and simple-minded) victimization fantasy dressed up as an action-thriller, Neruda, which is screening in the “Directors’ Fortnight” sidebar at Festival de Cannes, is a much more slippery and rewarding creation. The title suggests a biopic, but Larraín subverts that assumption from the get-go, offering instead a highly stylized piece of work that riffs around aspects of Neruda’s biography to its own, decidedly unusual, ends.
Reuniting with Larraín after their successful collaboration with No (2012), García Bernal plays Óscar Peluchonneau, a policeman who’s charged with arresting Neruda after he accuses the Chilean government of betrayal and finds himself impeached in the late 40s. “Catch him and humiliate him”, is Peluchonneau’s directive. Neruda (Luis Gnecco) goes into hiding but Peluchonneau is constantly on his trail, a fact that seems to concern Neruda a little less than one might imagine.
Beginning as a cat-and-mouse political thriller with a vaguely nourish ambience, Neruda gets odder as it goes along. The film turns meta via Neruda’s surprising passion for pulpy crime novels, but its real subject is the blurred, symbiotic relationship between Neruda, the poet, and the pursuing Peluchonneau.
Neruda’s wife (Mercedes Moran) goes so far as to suggest that Neruda has effectively “invented” Peluchonneau as a “supporting character” in his own drama, while Peluchonneau, as the son of a prostitute who’s uncertain of his father’s identity, seems to find in the poet something rather more complicated than a mere nemesis.
By the time this pair are stumbling around in the snow-covered Andes, the movie has moved into a dreamier mythic/poetic terrain that’s surprising and strangely liberating, turning the relationship of pursuer and pursued into a bromance of sorts.
For all its surprises and smarts, Neruda has some clunky moments, a few blips, and jarring digressions. Cameos for Picasso and Pinochet, for example, add interesting context but feel underdeveloped in Guillermo Calderón’s screenplay.
Mannered and sometimes irritating, the film is, nonetheless, memorable and compelling. Larraín serves up arresting images throughout—including an exquisite final shot—and fine performances (particularly from the terrific Gnecco) add to this intriguingly idiosyncratic experience.