Ditching the main competition for a while, and heading over at the Quinzaine des Realisateurs, I was lucky enough to catch the Chilean film Neruda, by director Pablo Larrain and starring my old friend Gael Garcia Bernal.
In one of his best ever performances Gael plays an inspector, a rather hapless one, charged with tracking poet and politician Neruda when he goes into hiding in 1948 up until he flees through the Andes into exile in Argentina.
I didn’t know much about Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda. I do have a volume of his love poems and always liked them very much, but he was an ardent communist and an ambassador and a senator and lived a very colourful life. Actually I got most of that info after the film, from a quick internet search – the film won’t tell you much biographical because it’s not a biopic, but a playful, exercise in myth-making that nevertheless puts across a great deal of info about the man and his influence as a poet.
Gael’s Inspector Pelluchonneau, with his little Clouseau-ish moustache, is described cruelly as “half moron, half idiot”, and Larrain turns this into a film noir of cat and mouse, having the detective fall partly in love with his quarry. Indeed, the film is about the elusive nature of truth, something of a pet theme for this trail-blazing director as he lifts the cinematic lid on long-taboo Chilean institutions.
What a strange and thrillingly bold film it is. From the very opening, when a parliamentary debate seems to take place in a giant mens’ toilet, there is formal daring and technical bravura. It’s a study in power and in politics and the actor playing Neruda, Luis Gnecco, is magnificent throughout, creating a man who is heroic, vain and deeply flawed, at once “the most important communist in the world”, a fugitive, a bon vivant, a poet, and – as the Inspector’s attempted smear campaign would have it: “a traitor, a public enemy and an unforgettable lover”.
Even better is the fact that Peluchonneau is also a richly complex character, an invented figure who allows the film to play with fact and fiction.
Larrain’s films, such as Post Mortem, Tony Manero, The Club and No (which also starred Gael), are always about abuses of power and the oppression of regimes and systems on ordinary people. The films themselves can feel oppressive, in a very good way, and Neruda has that quality too, even while it takes off on surreal flights of fancy, using pastiche, back projections and dark humour.
It’s a really fine, daring film – both in form and content – and it has both a poetic and a political power. It should have been in the main competition here rather than kicking off the Director’s Fortnight (Quinzaine ) section, but no matter -it’s a great launchpad and I’m sure it’ll do very well when it comes to the UK.
Featured image: Gael Garcia Bernal as Peluchonneau in Pablo Larrain’s NERUDA © 2016 – Fabula – AZ Films – Funny Balloons – Setembro Cine – All Rights Reserved