Francisco Fontes reviews Neruda, from director Pablo Larraín, at the New York Film Festival. It opens December 16th.
Pablo Larraín is one of those directors who never binds himself to a style. With each new movie, he explores new territory and creates something that looks and feels different from what he’s done before. It’s fresh, and you never know what to expect of its story or its look. With Neruda, he brings a sense of fantasy and poetry to a chapter in the life of Chile’s greatest poet, Pablo Neruda. However, this time Larraín tries to experiment at every level of the film. He loses his way, and gives us a movie that never reaches its full potential, as it fails to reach a balance of its ideas.
In this “anti-biopic”, the director and screenwriter Guillermo Calderón (who has worked together with Larraín on his previous film, The Club) explore the cat and mouse search for Neruda, who after joining the Communist Party, has to go underground. Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) is sent after him, in the name of Chile’s president (who in turn is following orders from the US government) While Peluchonneau’s name was found during the research for the film, nothing more is known about this police officer. From this point on, the film combines fantasy and fiction. Larrain is worried less about telling a true story than creating something different. It could have been exciting, but unfortunately is only convoluted.
The first thirty minutes of the film are so frenetically manipulated that it is hard to follow what is going on. There is no room to breathe; an incredible amount of information is thrown at us – some for no apparent concrete reason (eg.: mentioning Augusto Pinochet). The visuals only add to the confusion. Larráin shot some of the scenes three times, in three different locations, intercutting them. Conversations continue, uninterrupted in their content, but traveling from location to location, never settling down. The camera goes round and round the characters, trying to find an angle, but never reaching a result.
These techniques are further burdened by other stylistic decisions – like using back projection every time a character enters a car. Perhaps it is to separate the players from the story, an experimental attempt at a Nerudian storytelling. Talking about this period of his life, Neruda says that he is not sure if he lived it, wrote it, or dreamt it. This film feels the same way — failing to reach a coherent tone, and unfortunately delivering ambitious ideas that miss the mark.