Pablo Larrain is on his way to the directorial "A" list, and at this point, I don't see anything that could stop his momentum. After breaking onto the scene with Tony Manero and Post Mortem, the Chilean filmmaker's career received a big boost with the release of No, his 2013 film that received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Larrain caught the eye of many cinephiles with his docu-drama about the election that removed Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet from power. Larrain followed up that film with The Club, another highly acclaimed feature set in his home country. Once he gained fame on the international scale, Larrain moved to make his English language debut, which came in the form of last year's Jackie. One of the most profoundly engaging historical films in recent memory, Jackie announced the arrival of a sensational, extremely talented filmmaker. After the promise of No, Larrain's portrait of the iconic First Lady cemented his status as one of the best in the game.
Just over a month after Jackie found its way into American theaters, Larrain is back with Neruda, a film that he actually made before the aforementioned biopic. Neruda tells the story of famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, and the ensuing chase that occurred after the government issued a warrant for the Communist's arrest. Like Jackie, Neruda is a deeply unconventional film, featuring some very unique pacing and visual quirks. There's nothing quite like this film out there right now, and the blending of fact and fiction makes for a thrilling breath of fresh air. Most mainstream audiences will likely skip this one due to the mix of subtitles and unfamiliar subject matter, but for cinephiles like myself, Neruda confirms Larrain as one of the most prominent directorial voices of modern times, a filmmaker with a keen eye for deeply human characters, history, and the way that the two blend together in fascinating ways.
Set in the late 1940s and early 1950s in Chile, Neruda is story of the titular character (Luis Gnecco), the poet, senator, renowned Communist, and iconic hero of his home country. Or is this really his story? Does this tale belong to Neruda? Or does it belong to Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal), the shrewd inspector tasked with hunting down the legendary man? Maybe we're getting a little ahead of ourselves- after all, these questions only come up later. Let's back things up a bit. Neruda begins by establishing the influence of the individual, particularly his power over the working people and the Communist party of Chile. As his dissent becomes more threatening to the government, the President of Chile decides to have him arrest. He puts Peluchonneau on the case, and over the course of a very long time, the focused policeman hunts down the poet. As the hunt proves futile, the cop with plenty to prove is left questioning his place in the story, in what amounts to a meta-textual examination of fact, fiction, and everything in between.
Larrain clearly has no desire to make films that stick to conventions, and in a landscape dominated by rather generic historical biopics, his singular approach is a godsend. No was practically a docu-drama about a Chilean landmark, Jackie was about how history could be shaped by perception and legacy, and now, Neruda tackles how fact, fiction, and fantasy combine to craft the stories of our life. Larrain isn't interested in giving us any basic facts about the life of Pablo Neruda. He assumes that most audiences will know the essential achievements of his life, and the other facts are irrelevant or implied. At its essence, Neruda is a story about two men fighting to craft a narrative. Who's the supporting character? Who is writing the story? Did the men create each other to serve the story of their own lives? Larrain views history as a giant story that can be shaped, altered, and manipulated, and it's a theme that proves to be so incredibly fascinating.
For that reason, those looking for a traditional historical biopic will be sorely disappointed. I can't imagine that this film adheres very closely to the facts of the chase for Neruda, and having seen the film, I'm completely fine with that. Neruda is a beasts of its own, and it relies heavily on the dynamic relationship between Neruda and Peluchonneau. Oh, and by the way, they never share a scene together. There's an unspoken connection between the two men, one that is reinforced by the performances of Gnecco and Garcia Bernal. They deliver two excellent performances, and the way that they fight each other in a complex battle of wits manages to be funny, sharp, and thoroughly entertaining. Larrain doesn't make too many attempts to have the audience sympathize with our two leads, but his characterizations are so perfect, and he creates two figures that are simply larger-than-life. You feel like you're watching a story inside a story, with characters who find extra dimensions within themselves. And simply put, that's something that few filmmakers are able to accomplish.
If I'm being quite honest, this was a tough review to write, as Neruda is a difficult film to describe. It's wholly innovative and original in the biopic sphere, and I love the way that Larrain continues to make his own striking choices at every turn. Neruda is a visually sumptuous film, an achievement of writing, character, and style that has a sweet, whimsical charm. It takes a bit of effort to crack into this one, but there's no doubting its sense of fun and cleverness. Larrain is still in the early stages of his career, but with the one-two punch of Neruda and Jackie, it's clear that he's here to stay. This is another exceptional achievement for the young filmmaker, and I can't wait to see where he goes from here.
THE FINAL GRADE: B+ (7.8/10)
Image Credits: IMDB