Easily one of my favorites of 2017, Neruda gets Pablo Larraín back on track after what I think is the only slight misstep in his filmography (Jackie). Neruda is playful and beautiful. Like The Club, Larraín favors hazy frames, often seemingly underneath a layer of gauze. It’s not pushed as hard as that film, and here it feels dreamlike rather than menacing. No surprise that Sergio Armstrong shot both films, but didn’t shoot Jackie.
The ending of the film reminds of a favorite of mine: McCabe and Mrs. Miller. And the whole film has a similar vibe to that Altman piece. There’s something inevitable, and both compassionate and dangerous at the same time. Some of this is in the way the camera constantly creeps along, but doesn’t follow as propulsively as in Jackie. It’s more keenly observatory here than it is internally demanding. Or course there’s also Federico Jusid’s score, which is a far cry from Mica Levi’s.
Some SPOILERS below
One of the great things about Neruda is that it really – I think more than any of his other films, including No – marks a shift for Larraín. The film is so much gentler than any of his other works. It’s lighthearted, mischievous, and funny at times, while never sacrificing any tension or sense of violence lurking just around the corner.
Gael García Bernal is so good as Óscar Peluchonneau, a detective who may or may not be real, chasing after the poet Pablo Neruda (an also-awesome Luis Gnecco), an accused Communist. Bernal plays Peluchonneau as though he’s just on the verge of winking at us but has to keep it straight for the sake of…the audience? His boss? Himself? It’s a nearly mannered performance, and certainly owes something to Sellar’s Inspector Clouseau, but it’s never stuffy.
It would be really easy to just mock Peluchonneau and have the great poet take the reins of the film, but the director avoids the trap. Peluchonneau is called “half-idiot, half-moron,” but Neruda is called out for his quasi-ideals by a woman who he thinks is an admirer, and later he can’t properly mount a horse (what kind of self-respecting Communist can’t get on a horse?).
What Larraín’s film eventually becomes is a literary mystery. It’s not far off from something like Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, or other self-referential literature. At the end, in the McCabe-like chase in the snow Peluchonneau remarks on how he’s like a character in a mystery, and how his chase is also creating Neruda by lending him a newfound aura and fame. Then later, it’s as though Neruda’s words awaken – by means of a nicely timed crosscut – Peluchonneau from the grave.