Thursday 6 April 2017

Poetry in motion: "Neruda"

The Chilean director Pablo Larraín is on such a hot streak that Neruda comprises his third film to reach these shores in the space of twelve months, after his excoriating Catholic church drama The Club and the fitful American venture of Jackie. Taken as a one-two-three, as UK audiences now can, they add up to yet more proof, after the triptych of Tony Manero, Post Mortem and NO, of just what an exceptional filmmaker we've discovered: one with the ability to work in three very different registers, in three different locales, for three different paymasters, and still come up with intelligent, engrossing cinema. To my eyes, Neruda is the masterpiece: a not-quite biopic that charts its own course into Chilean history and politics, and comes back with pocketfuls of vital observations about the ways of men.

Where 1994's arthouse hit Il Postino hymned Pablo Neruda the romantic poet, the Neruda we're introduced to here - in, of all places, a gentlemen's toilets - is a figure steeped in realpolitik. The year is 1948, and Neruda, having ventured into politics, has just become an elected member of the Chilean senate, dubbed "the most important Communist in the world" and known for the uncommon articulacy of his speeches. As played by the 55-year-old Luis Gnecco - best known, up to this point, for portraying the David Brent/Michael Scott role on the Chilean variant of The Office - this Neruda is hardly the lithe, tan Casanova his verse would suggest, though; he is instead a balding, portly fellow, fond of whores and booze, who is at one point seen repeatedly failing to climb onto a horse.

On the Senate floor, however, he is something of a force of nature, passionate and persuasive indeed in his pushing of a single issue: the fate of his fellow Communists, being held as political prisoners under the rule of then-President Videla. Fearing that all this talk isn't enough to make a difference, Neruda plans to flee over the border to neighbouring Argentina, thus alerting the world's media to the insufferable living conditions within his homeland; as he's mulling over the details, however, a more immediate threat presents itself. This is Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal), a secret policeman dispatched by Videla (Larrain's acteur fétiche Alfredo Castro) with the specific aim of bringing the errant politico to heel. 

The first and perhaps most important thing to note is that Peluchonneau is an entirely fictional creation, but then Neruda isn't conventional biopic so much as an increasingly allegorical cat-and-mouse pursuit: the agent of change and creation pursued by his nemesis, the agent of destruction, and scattering teasing-to-mocking clues ("Rise and be born with me") behind him at every stage for the younger man to puzzle out. To even matters out, Larraín hands Bernal - the hero of NO, you'll remember - voiceover duties: what we're getting here is Neruda as seen and approached by his mortal enemy, an approach that makes the policeman's grudging moments of respect for his quarry count double.

This is the first of several new angles Larraín opens up here. That Neruda is not meant as exact history - a definitive pinning down of facts - is conveyed by a curious yet hugely effective visual tic whereby the characters shift position within the frame across cuts. At first, it strikes the eye as sloppy continuity (and possibly an unintended consequence of Larraín's rapid-fire shooting style), yet it recurs so often that it starts to seem like an expression of a brilliant idea: rather than the usual fixed points, these characters represent those restless, ever-shifting perspectives and beliefs inside us all, ideas too big, too agitated and perhaps too agitating to be contained in the one spot for long.

Identity, too, comes to shift before our very eyes. The fact our hero is operating under a nom de plume prevents his easy passage into Argentina; later, we see Neruda dragging up as a prostitute in order to elude his pursuer. Where the poet, clearly, continues multitudes (and thereby understands most), Peluchonneau remains throughout a deeply odd fish - by far the oddest character the generally likable Bernal has played, moved as he is to remark of Neruda's first wife that "this blonde has hot teeth". Thus does Larraín position flexible art as a counterpoint or corrective to iron-fist fascism: a way for individuals to impose their will upon the world for good.   

Neruda is certainly of a piece with the rest of this director's filmography - the casting of Bernal and Castro offers its own welcome and pleasurable continuity - yet it also functions in some way as a prologue to those earlier films, travelling even further back into Chile's past to illustrate exactly where the state of terror those movies described came from. In passing, one scene introduces us to the so-called "blue-eyed fox" who runs Videla's prison camps: Agustin Pinochet himself. All it takes for fascism to exert its grip, evidently, is a coalition of stunted, impotent or otherwise insecure individuals - tiny men, like Peluchonneau - to go along with the orders being handed down from above.

That conclusion alone would make Neruda one of the most chastening releases of this particular political moment, and yet the central pursuit makes the film a greatly more commercial proposition than it might have seemed. It will be words and ideas that propel this flight, however: Larraín works in his subject's rhymes, letters and other writings, at each fork in the road conveying not just Neruda's open, generous worldview - communicated equally by the manner in which Gnecco relates to everybody else in a scene - but something of Chile at large, its people and attitudes, as we head further from civilisation and out into the Andes. A further astonishment: we get all that in under 100 minutes. Larraín may be the closest thing we now have to a genius in world cinema: here, he's constructed a biopic with rare punch and guts, the heart and soul of a poet, and brains, balls and legs besides.

Neruda opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.  

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