Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín released two of this past year’s most provocative biopics within four weeks of each other, first Jackie and now Neruda. Larraín’s portrait of the grieving First Lady of Camelot may have defied convention in its subjective imagining of Mrs. Kennedy, but the filmmaker’s panoramic summing-up of the life and times of Chile’s poet laureate, Pablo Neruda, is the better movie.
Neruda was his pen name, evidently borrowed from the Czech poet Jan Neruda. The son of a railway worker, Ricardo Reyes Basoalto adopted the Neruda handle on his way to becoming one of the world’s most lauded poets, the voice of the Chilean people’s opposition to that country’s political right turn after WWII. As portrayed convincingly by actor Luis Gnecco, the balding, dumpy-looking Neruda is not exactly a matinee idol, but his words can captivate a crowd in a copper mine or a bordello, take your pick. However, Chile’s leaders see Neruda, a member of that country’s senate, as a rabble-rouser who must be neutralized, because the idea of a communist Chile terrifies Washington. When Neruda goes into hiding, a dapper little fascist of a police detective named Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) is assigned to track him down, no questions asked.
Neruda and his friends love to party. They’re the sort of artsy-fartsy leftists who would be the first to run if a Bolshevik revolution broke out, observes the poet in voiceover: “They love to soak up other people’s suffering and sweat.” Neruda’s wife Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán) is also viewed as a dilettante — she and Neruda pal around with another rich commie, Pablo Picasso. That’s the heart of the paradox running through Larraín’s film. Neruda has a poet’s empathy for his compatriots, but he’s no Che Guevara. And yet here, as in Jackie, the director finds his way into the mental processes of his famous subject. The grander the stage, the more intimate the reflections.
It’s the most mild-mannered of political thrillers. Neruda, “The King of Love,” is not built for storming through snowy hills on horseback. When the story gets down to a chase in Chile’s rugged South, we’re surprised to be outdoors, away from the drawing rooms. But Gnecco, García, and Morán’s performances are succinct and beguiling, Larraín’s touch is graceful, and we’re treated to scenes such as the one in which a haggard female laborer asks Neruda: “When communism arrives, will we all be equal to him [Neruda] or equal to me? To me, one who’s cleaned the shit of the bourgeoisie since I was eleven?” The poet replies: “To me. We’re going to eat in bed and fornicate in the kitchen.”