Neruda ★★★★

"You are a work of fiction." The words of femme fatale Delia del Carril (Moran) hits us with head-cocking absurdity. The noble wife says what she says matter of factly; as if observing the glorious excesses of a dime novel or glancing at a Grecian urn. Her criticism is pointed at Oscar Peluchonneau (Bernal), a Prefect tasked with bringing the Chilean Communist poet Pablo Neruda (Gnecco) to justice. The crime in his eyes - treason. The crime in the eyes of the average Chilean - doing to his readers what the spring does to cherry blossoms.

The iconoclastic life of Pablo Neruda is seen through the bile-filled gaze of Investigator Peluchonneau, whose hatred for communists is eclipsed only by a fear of being a supporting character in his own story. Upon President Videla's (Castro) orders, Peluchonneau is to find and arrest Neruda. Yet as a .22 caliber mind in a .357 magnum world, Peluchonneau finds the poet always at arm's length. Despite being a wanted criminal, Neruda walks about in relative safety through the streets of Santiago and Valparaiso, connecting with all those he meets with uncommon sincerity. Pelunchonneau envies him, he hates him, though he's fascinated by him too.

The world of Neruda is a manufactured but playful one. It's a formal mix of noir, surrealism and melodrama connected to its fiery political center like a figure clinging to its ominous shadow. Peluchonneau's dogged pursuit of the libertine poet is punctuated by steely-eyed rides through the Andes, leaning, mate drinking poses in the dusk and Pink Panther (1963) levels of happenstance and near misses. It sometimes feels like he's even in on the ruse, always finding time to give the camera a rube-like smirk. As if to taunt him, Neruda leaves behind detective novels for the indentured gumshoe which he reads not to find clues but for leisure.

Neruda isn't just satisfied with giving its audience genre thrills and a neo-classicalist milieu however. Ancillary plot details pop out of the celluloid like thickets of antimetabole. The elliptical editing and change of viewpoint coaxes the audience to really look at the screen and analyze what they're seeing. Are we watching reality or are we watching someone's supposed ideal of reality? And whose ideal are we really seeing? Add to that emotional crescendos in a brothel and haughty political demagoguery in a vast senate bathroom and you got yourself a movie stitched and laced with absurdity.

Yet Neruda, for all its high-minded fun isn't a perfect film. The coarse tonal shifts feel purposeful a lot of the time though I doubt they all managed to hit their targets. Two thirds of the way through, a Communist laundress asks in a stupor if "when the revolution comes, will we all be like you, or will we all be like me?" Veiled in Neruda's answer is sharp social commentary that collides uncomfortably with the intention of the film like an uncalled for Augusto Pinochet cameo. Additionally, while Neruda is far more cerebral than the similar Il Postino (1994), it doesn't quite register on an emotional level. A large oversight considering this is a film about a poet.

Overall Neruda is a handsome, literate and crafty film that is unafraid to take bold risks with its real-life subject. It has an uncommon clarity of thought that shines through its intimate tale and while it may be accused by some as stuffy, the story and direction by Pablo Larrain can't help but give it color.