This unconventional, playful and at times surrealistic biopic on Pablo Neruda, Chile’s celebrated poet, is undermined by the lead character, who amounts to little more than an artist stereotype.
As with his superb Jackie, Chilean director Pablo Larraín shies sharply away from the conventions of the standard biopic in this depiction of one of his country’s national treasures, poet and devoted communist Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco). Eschewing a cradle-to-grave approach in order to focus on the personality of his subject rather than his life per se, Larraín confines the time frame of the drama to a short period commencing in 1948, when Neruda fled to exile in Argentina with his wife Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán) following the issuing of a directive for his arrest from anti-communist right-wing Chilean President Videla (Alfredo Castro).
While the flight to exile is based in fact, there is little attempt at maintaining historical accuracy. Indeed, you get the feeling that Larraín and screenwriter Guillermo Calderón relish not doing so. A noirish detective who sets out on Neruda’s trail, Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), for example, did not exist in reality, but here shares equal billing with Neruda as a character. He might have walked out of the pages of one of the detective pulp thrillers Neruda likes to read. Destined always to miss his man by moments, on one such occasion the hapless Peluchonneau comes face to face with Neruda’s wife, who informs him that he is a mere projection of the great poet, who has predetermined his fate like any character in a fiction.
It’s not entirely clear whether Delia’s declaration is supposed to be taken literally. No marks for originality in this excursion to meta land, in any case – of course, this sort of thing has been done before many times. The thought occurs that Larraín might be dipping his lid to the likes of Jorge Luis Borges, paying homage in a sense. There’s none of the breathtaking literary magicianship of Borges or the magic realists here though. It’s all a bit self-consciously “clever” without actually being so.
More successful is the slightly surrealistic feel of the piece. While on the run, Neruda segues improbably from tête-à-têtes and non-sexual intimacy with Delia while hiding out in hotel rooms to public poetry readings in bohemian salon settings, and naked romps licking champagne from the bodies of gorgeous adoring prostitutes. The cinematography, superb throughout, creates a dream-like atmosphere at times, particularly in the concluding stages, set in some spectacular and almost hallucinogenic Andes mountain snowscapes. It’s a perfect locale for a final showdown between Peluchonneau and Neruda that turns very weird.
For me, the film is let down by a glaring and insurmountable weakness: the characterisation of Neruda. He’s a composite of clichés, a tired stereotype of the artist as special and above the standards society expects of mere mortals. His debauchery is an oh-so-standard trait of the great artist, an unquestioned right. An ego on legs, he accepts the adulation of his enraptured audience as a given as he recites his poetry (often!) with an air of self-importance and grandeur. Sure, it’s fine poetry, but that doesn’t save him from pomposity. And what are we to make of his advocating social equality yet living the lifestyle of the privileged? In one scene he embraces a beggar in the street who asks him for money. Does this show of compassion excuse his hypocrisy? I guess it’s supposed to.
Then there is his relationship with his wife. An esteemed artist in her own right, she sacrifices herself for her psychologically dependent husband, living dutifully in his giant shadow, succouring him, tending to him, being there whenever he needs her. She yearns for a child, but her sexual advances are repelled by the Great Man, for whom she is mother, not lover. Not so interesting – we all know about the Goddess-Whore Syndrome. What’s interesting is the stuff behind it, and this we get nothing of.
Gnecco’s performance is fine. He does an excellent job with the material he has to work with. It is not his fault that the character was written by numbers in the ink of stereotype.
For all the effort of the filmmakers to tell the story unconventionally in a poetic mode most befitting their protagonist, they undercut themselves in buying into and reinforcing a stereotype of The Artist that goes back centuries and is well past its use-by date. The result, for me at least, is that as a lead character Neruda is irritating, uninteresting and emotionally unengaging, and undoes a film with some outstanding cinematography and generally excellent performances.
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