Houston Cinematic Arts Festival
2016 has been a great year for films that toy with the notion of genre; “Neruda” is the second from Pablo Larraín in this calendar year alone. Like “Jackie,” this is a work at war with the preconceived notion of the biopic. Although in this film, Larraín and screenwriter Guillermo Calderón seek less to redefine the genre so much as they desire to smash it.
This portrait of Chilean poet and political activist Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) casts scant attention on his artistic achievements or his radicalization. If you wish to come away from “Neruda” knowing these things, you’ll have to head to Wikipedia while the credits roll. Instead, the film more closely resembles a police mystery with Gael García Bernal’s inspector Óscar Peluchonneau hunting down the fugitive Neruda. It’s a cat and mouse thriller, and the mouse is particularly elusive because he can shape-shift.
Neruda, ever the writer, confounds the search by essentially turning his life into a novel before our own eyes. Separating the truth from his narrative spin becomes trickier with each passing scene, especially because Neruda is quite a playful author. From the film itself, Peluchonneau comes across like a long-lost brother of Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc Sportello from “Inherent Vice.” Is that his actual persona? We’re not meant to know – or care.
I always understood the intended effect of “Neruda,” but Larraín’s insistence on keeping us at arm’s length proved frustrating. With such distance, the film feels like a cold intellectual exercise – something to understand but not involve yourself in. In the absence of any kind of connection or investment, the labyrinthine plot comes to tire by the end of the film. B- /