The Great Poet played his part, almost too well.
An egoist and charmer, he could be relied on to recite verse, on demand, at parties, at brothels, to strangers on the street.
Callous, yet soulful, devoted yet a womanizer, he lived, walked and spoke (in his public “poet’s voice”) like the national/international treasure he knew himself to be.
Pablo Neruda knew how to carry himself like his pal Picasso, both of them “rock stars” before there was such a thing.
“Neruda”is a playful, picaresque look at the poet at his peak, a man of letters, fame and public service who could turn his voice and withering way with words on his proto-fascist foes in the Chilean Senate as a member there, and a whimsical hedonist who went underground when communists, like himself and his miners’ union friends were being rounded up and killed, or sent to concentration camps in the Chilean desert.
The world already knew Neruda, given a wry, bemused resignation by character actor Luis Gnecco, as the Great Love Poet, author of lines such as ““I crave your mouth, your voice, your hair.Silent and starving, I prowl through the streets. Bread does not nourish me, dawn disrupts me, all day I hunt for the liquid measure of your steps.”
But in his native Chile, he was known for his politics — a man of privilege who served as foreign consuls overseas, a communist convert in the Spanish Civil War, a champion of the working class, the campesinos of his native land, whom he celebrated and urged to action with his political poems.
But when he insults the sitting president on the floor of the Senate, a warrant is issued for his arrest. Neruda, his long-suffering wife Delia (Mercedes Moran) by his side, is spirited off into the night, hidden in safe houses by his fellow communists.
Writer Guillermo Calderon and director Pablo Larrain turn this period of Neruda’s life into a cat-and-mouse game. They over-reach for a tone, an interpretation of Neruda not unlike the one that came out of the Italian romance “Il Postino,” where Neruda gives advice to the lonely postman who delivers his mail on a remote Italian island where the poet was exiled, for a time. Here, the “comedy” comes from the poet’s chief persecutor, the prefect of the State Police, Inspector Oscar Peluchoneau. Gael Garcia Bernal plays him as Neruda’s personal Javert, a fedora-wearing dandy who narrates the chase that Neruda sets him on.
In this telling, Peluchoneau is a tormented man, unacknowledged by his famous policeman father, sneering at the decadence and hypocrisy of wealthy leftists like Neruda. Let the “revolution” come, and they’d be the first to flea to the comforts of decadent dictatorships that surrounded Chile in the South America of the ’40s and 50s.
Peluchoneau is as Neruda imagines him, an officious fop to be toyed with, led hither and yon all over Chile in a merry but deadly chase. For while Neruda is in genuine fear for his safety and his friends are frantic to get him out of the country, he is also determined to make a game of it, to entertain the people and rally them to his cause.
He leaves paperback detective novels with autographed taunts inscribed inside the covers for the cop to find. He flaunts his fugitive status at brothels and parties, a man all of Chile is talking about even as its government is labeling him a communist traitor.
And along the way, as Neruda takes foolish chances and is foiled at this border crossing or that Chinese merchant ship getaway, he writes and bickers with his protectors and wife, hugs and kisses his adoring public and turns on “the Poet’s Voice” — the sing-song incantation of a priest reciting his famous lines — for one and all.
It’s a playful film, in Spanish with English subtitles, with melodramatic undertones, a score filled with romantic yet urgent strings — the music of Ives, Grieg and Penderecki — telling us “the fat communist” is in peril, even if he seems to be having a pretty good time of it.
Bernal is content to play the straight man in this morbid comedy, tormented by the pursuit and determined to see it through. But Gnecco, a Chilean comic actor well-known all over Latin America for assorted TV series, smirks and recites and plays Neruda as the legend he was and the role of a lifetime he’s become.
MPAA Rating: R for sexuality/nudity and some language
Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Luis Gnecco, Mercedes Moran
Credits:Directed by Pablo Larrain, script by Guillermo Calderon. A The Orchard release.
Running time: 1:47