It used to be, back in the days of Hollywood factory filmmaking, that film directors would routinely make at least a movie a year but more than likely more than one. I think this was partly because directors came into the process later and left it earlier than they do now but it’s still impressive how fast they could crank out movies. Today there are still directors capable of putting out two movies in a year, Clint Eastwood has been known to do it and so has Spielberg, but it’s a pretty rare occurrence. Even rarer though is the act of putting out three essentially unrelated movies in a single year, which is what the Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain has managed to do by releasing his films The Club, Jackie, and Neruda all in the year of 2016. Granted, this was largely the result of the vagaries of how foreign films get released in America. IMDB would consider The Club a 2015 film because of its earlier Chilean release and Neruda only barely got in by getting a New York/L.A. release in late December, but from where I sit he did manage to get all of these movies in during a single year. What’s more, every one of these movies is at the very least interesting. The Club didn’t quite work for me but it had some interesting things to say about the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal and I’m certainly on record as thinking Jackie (which was his English language debut) is one of the year’s best. For Neruda he returns to Chile to tell the story about a very famous Chilean.
The film is set in 1948 and at this point Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is already a larger than life figure in Chile and a world famous poet and political activist in the country’s communist party. It’s a tumultuous time in Chile as the recently elected Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro) has proven to not be the leftist figure that everyone had hoped when he was elected and it has become clear that everyone in the communist party would soon be in danger. Neruda goes underground but continues making appearances among the Chilean counter-culture as he seeks a means of exiting the country. Meanwhile, an police investigator named Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) has been brought in by Videla and tasked with finding Neruda, a task that Peluchonneau has every intention to complete. This will however prove difficult as Neruda is slippery and willing to taunt Peluchonneau at every turn.
I’d be lying if I said I was familiar with the life and work of Pablo Neruda before seeing this movie. I’m not proud of that, the man was a Nobel laureate and was once called “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language” by Gabriel García Márquez, so he certainly seems like someone an educated person should know about. The film focuses less on his literary achievements than on his status as a political figure in Chile but either way it’s a pretty decent crash course in what he was like and what his stature was. In playing the character Luis Gnecco certainly seems to have captured the look of Neruda, or at least what he seemed to look like in the photos I was able to google, then again I’m not wildly familiar with Gnecco as an actor so it’s hard to gauge how much of a transformation this is. Either way the movie does a good job of showing the poet’s free spirited defiance and it’s fun to see him elude the authorities at every turn. Audiences seeing the movie are likely meant to be well aware of the fact that Neruda does not get captured and the movie never tries to give the illusion that Peluchonneau is ever going to be a match for Neruda even when he occasionally seems to have the drop on him.
Where the movie started to lose me was in its second half where the movie introduces a meta element with the Gael García Bernal character which I don’t think is really as fascinating as it possibly could have been. I’m not going to discuss it in much detail here but I’m still not exactly sure what was supposed to be real and unreal in it and I’m not sure what the ultimate point of that was supposed to be. I do wonder if that business was a reference to something in Neruda’s literature or an actual documented element in his life that more familiar audiences would be better able to pick up on but for me it just felt a bit odd. If it hasn’t been made clear so far, I think the fact that I’m not Chilean has me at a bit of a disadvantage with this movie, or perhaps more accurately my ignorance of early 20th Century Chilean history and the works of Pablo Neruda have me at a bit of a disadvantage. That said, I don’t begrudge Larrain for having chosen not to dumb down his movie for people who don’t go into it with a whole lot of outside knowledge. The fact that he made his one of his other films this year, Jackie, in a similarly uncompromising way is one of its strengths and I wonder if part of the chilly reception that it’s gotten is that audiences less educated in that story have left it a touch baffled. However, I’m not going to entirely blame myself for the fact that this movie didn’t entirely impress me. There are other issues in it like it’s rather bland and washed out photography and regardless of if I’m missing anything that ending still could have been handled better. Either way I do think this is a worthy, if slightly disappointing entry in Larrain’s filmography and I look forward to his future work.