This week is bookended by two films with a literary flavor: two bio-pics of poets, one from the 19th century, the other from the 20th. A Quiet Passion is a respectful bio-pic of the American poet Emily Dickinson. If you’re expecting the same from Pablo Larrain’s Neruda, then you’re in for a surprise. A big one.
It follows a chapter in the life of Chilean poet, diplomat and politician, Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco). He was a Communist Senator in the country’s parliament in 1948, when the president declared the party illegal and ordered Neruda’s arrest. He went on the run, dodging the authorities, in the particular the dogged policeman on his tail, the wonderfully named Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal). Staying one step ahead becomes all-consuming for Neruda, as he hides in cramped houses and basements and eventually takes to the mountains to escape – and the policeman is just as obsessed with catching his quarry.
Larrain describes the film as an “anti-bio”. While it’s based on Neruda’s time on the run, this is a chase movie that takes on epic proportions but keeps its feet firmly on the ground through the ordinary people who risk their lives by helping their charismatic hero. We’re shown the potential price they could have paid, the brutal prison camps in the middle of the desert, one of which was run by a certain Augusto Pinochet. It’s a glance in the direction of the future: Pinochet eventually became President after a coup d’etat in 1973.
The film opens with a startlingly wry scene: Neruda holding the floor in midst of a debate in the Chilean parliament. Except the debating chamber is the men’s toilets, where the Senators use the urinals, wash their hands, add to the arguments and fling insults at each other. It’s what Neruda calls “the shitty parliament”, but what he really has in mind is the actual government at the time. He is soon a marked man, under the threat of 541 days in jail and, apparently, with some 300 policeman looking for him, both of which he finds incongruous. We see only one of them, Peluchonneau, who is constantly baited and goaded by Neruda, and who occasionally comes hair-splittingly close to catching him. He’s also the film’s narrator and the very fact that he tells the story right from the outset means he’s not a “supporting character”, even though he’s convinced that’s what he’s become. The very thought is a dent to his vanity.
There’s more than just a game of cat and mouse connecting the two men. Peluchonneau is fascinated by the poet and desperate to attract the same devotion. And Neruda seems to know that, leaving his pursuer clues and messages written inside his favourite crime novels. The cop laps them up, messages and books alike.
The two actors are superb. Bernal’s obsessive detective seems to live partly in a fantasy world: literally the “son of a whore”, he believes his father founded the Chilean police force, although how true this is we never know. His posturing and self-importance are, in turn, pathetic and comic. Luis Gnecco, a Larrain regular, bears a remarkable physical resemblance to the real Neruda. He’s a gloriously elusive and contradictory figure, resolutely refusing to let anybody pin him down, be they his wife, the police or anybody else who comes close to him.
A mixture of history, legend and fiction – we’re never sure when one ends and the other begins – Neruda is a deeply involving, shadowy thriller. With not just one, but two, enthralling characters at its centre.
Neruda is in UK cinemas 7 April.