Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s biopic-of-sorts chronicles a key period in the life of poet, diplomat and politician Pablo Neruda.
Neruda was produced, impressively enough, pretty much consecutively with his first US effort, the Natalie-Portman-starring Jackie. While this is the more ambitious of the two, it doesn’t quite work, with a strange clashing of themes and tones and a final act that could leave you baffled.
Three years after the end of World War II the middle-aged Neruda (beautifully played by Luis Gnecco, a dead ringer for the real thing) is as much loved by the populace as loathed by the government. When communism is outlawed, he initially doesn’t take the increasing danger seriously and responds with hearty humour. When a warrant is issued for his arrest, he’s forced underground with his adoring if long-suffering artist wife Delia (Mercedes Morán).
Shielded by friends and fans, Pablo poses such a threat that a police inspector named Oscar Peluchonneau is continually on his trail. He’s played by Mexican Gael García Bernal, who toplined Larrain’s excellent No and whose handsome face adorns this one’s ads and posters – and, therefore, you might assume is the star. He isn’t really, and while Bernal is strong and funny, he’s rather hamstrung by some odd stylised trimmings (obvious old-school backprojection is used when he’s in a car) and a series of late-on, somewhat headscratching revelations that might have worked in a book (or even a poem). But this is a movie.
With cameos by Picasso (portrayed by Emilio Gutiérrez Caba), a glimpse of Augusto Pinochet (who figures heavily in No) and one lovely Neruda piece repeated several times (usually translated as Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines), this begins as a politically charged epic, then turns into a wobbly rumination on creativity and imagination, and isn’t quite as poetic as intended. Nevertheless, as a study of freedom of speech and expression, it’s still worth catching, as Neruda stood up and spoke up at a time when he could have been locked up, and we all need to do the same right NOW.
Rated MA. Neruda is in cinemas now