The eventful and unorthodox life of the Nobel Prize–winning poet, politician, committed communist, unapologetic hedonist and Chilean cultural icon Pablo Neruda provides plentiful territory for cinematic exploration. The poet’s early-1950s exile in Procida previously inspired Michael Radford’s Il Postino, a fictionalized story about Neruda’s relationship with a local postman that left few cinemagoers dry-eyed. Now, Pablo Larraín (Jackie, No), Chile’s most inventive and provocative contemporary filmmaker, takes a wholly unique approach to his famous countryman’s life and work with Neruda, which is set during the poet’s sojourn underground in the late 1940s.
Following the Chilean president’s outlawing of communism in 1948, Neruda (Luis Gnecco, No) and his artist wife Delia (Mercedes Morán, The Motorcycle Diaries) are forced into hiding. While the mundanity of life on the run holds little charm for the cultured pair, this also proves to be a time of prolific output for the poet, as Neruda’s ideologically charged poems rouse the people and give voice to the voiceless.
Providing counterpoint to Neruda, Larraín introduces a second protagonist: an invented character named Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal, No, Rosewater), an ambitious police inspector hoping to make a name for himself by capturing the celebrity fugitive. Larraín uses the cat-and-mouse game between these two adversaries to reflect on notions of identity and character, as Peluchonneau strives to escape from his fictional origins by tracking down the “real” Neruda.
Elegant and beguiling, Neruda offers a (fittingly) Nerudian vision of its eponymous protagonist. It is a metafictional fable that blends historical recreation with literary and cinematic fabrication. Pushing the limits of filmic biography, Larraín offers a stimulating and sometimes startling rumination on the split that can exist between the person and the persona, the man and the artist.
“Surprises always come at the end of Pablo Larraín’s films, when everything suddenly comes together and the audience sits in the cinema feeling both illuminated and floored. Neruda is no different, representing the director at his stunning best with a work of such cleverness and beauty, alongside such power, that it’s hard to know how to parcel out praise.” (Jay Weissberg, Variety)
“A dexterous, mischievous, almost incomprehensibly intelligent film that has such invention packed into every frame that the only real danger is overload, Neruda works most thrillingly as an effusive love letter to the very concept of fiction and all the ways it can set you free, written in lyrical but staccato meter, perhaps with a rose between the teeth.” (Jessica Kiang, The Playlist)