2016 New York Film Festival: The mark of a true auteur is when you watch a film of theirs and revel at how only they could have executed it in just that way. A prime example of this is Pablo Larraín‘s latest film, the pseudo biopic “Neruda.” As much a low-key thriller as a true look at the Chilean poet, this is an unusual work, one that’s still strangely compelling. There are occasional lulls in the action and the first half is superior to the second, but “Neruda” works. There’s a playfulness on hand that Larraín seems to relish. It’s an infectious sense of play, too, that fuels this movie.
“Neruda” is the sort of project that could only come from a filmmaker with a unique take on the world. Much as he’s receiving raves for how he tackled another kind of biopic in “Jackie,” Larraín elevates things here. There’s a hypnotic quality on display that makes potentially dry material consistently interesting. You remain curious about just what is going to happen next, which is a bit of a magic trick here. Mixing fact and fiction, Larraín captures the poet’s spirit in “Neruda” more so than his life, and that’s a fine decision. It helps separate this drama from the rest of the arthouse biopic pack.
Taking place during the late 1940s, this is a look at a specific period in the life of poet/political revolutionary Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco). Persecuted for being a member of the Communist Party, Neruda is eventually sought to be imprisoned. Choosing to go on the run with his wife Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), the President Gabriel Gonzalez Videla (Alfredo Castro) orders a manhunt. Taking up this cause is the nearly inept policeman Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal). A fictional creation of Larraín’s, the cop is as much another version of the poet as anything else. While the fugitive lover is a hedonist and wit, the police prefect is dry and humorless, though not without admiration for his target. From there, an unusual game of cat and mouse begins.
There’s a pair of strong performances anchoring the film, helping to execute Larraín’s specific vision. Gnecco commands the screen as the title character, capturing not just his appeal to the masses, but his gregarious humanity. This sort of interpretation for the character is unexpected, but it certainly works. Also impressive is the always strong García Bernal, bringing his part to near comic levels of oddity. In playing two sides of the same coin, their performances are only enhanced when compared. Other supporting players are solid, including the aforementioned Castro and Morán. Also on hand are Emilio Gutiérrez Caba as Pablo Picasso, along with Alejandro Goic, Diego Muñoz, Jaime Vadell and more.
Larraín opens his directorial toy box here in order to bring “Neruda“ to life. Not only does he utilize rear projection for car rides, lending a classic feel, but he goes way beyond that. Along with cinematographer Sergio Armstrong, he has the camera almost dance around during complex shots. Everything about the look of the film is almost hedonistic, showcasing the richness of life. If the screenplay by Guillermo Calderón gets a bit pretentious in the end, Larraín’s direction remains top notch. Considering how highly praised his work in “Jackie“ has been, this is turning into the year of Larraín. It’ll be a pleasure to see what he does next.
Overall, “Neruda” is a solid entry into the NYFF books this year. It’s well acted, compelling and fantastically directed. Especially if you’ve enjoyed the filmmaking of Larraín before, this will only further solidify that. The same goes for fans of García Bernal. It’s a slightly challenging work and not what you’d expect from a biopic, but that’s part of the charm here. There’s a chance that “Jackie” and “Neruda” both end up nominated for Academy Awards. We’ll have to wait and see if Oscar comes calling for Larraín, but “Neruda” is one to certainly seek out once it moves past the festival circuit. There’s a lot to like here.
“Neruda” is Chile’s official submission for Foreign Language Film.
The film will screen at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 5.