Hot off the heels of Jackie comes Neruda, another biopic from director Pablo Larraín. Shifting his focus from former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda, Larraín also shifts his entire approach, as these two films are nothing alike. While Jackie focused on a very specific time frame and scenario, Neruda is sprawling tale that generously incorporates fiction with fact, challenging the very concept of biography. Credit where credits due: Larraín has achieved something remarkable, offering two tremendously distinct approaches to the same genre, and to do so within the same year is all the more impressive. Unfortunately, while the unconventional approach works in Jackie, Neruda struggles from being overly ambitious, resulting in a film that is often baffling and monotonous.
At the beginning of the film, Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is still a member of the Chilean Senate. After denouncing President Gabriel Gonzalez Videla (Alfredo Castro) for abandoning his roots to join the war on communism, Neruda goes into hiding with his wife, assisted by members of the communist party as he continues to create his beloved poetry. Enter the fictional police officer Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal), who provides the film with a voice-over narration, who undergoes a dogged pursuit of Neruda. Peluchonneau’s narration reveals that he is merely a work of fiction, and at one point in the film he even asks aloud whether he is real. The blurring of reality and fiction is an interesting one, but Larraín seems to be stuck between two different films: a biopic about Neruda, and another about the officer chasing him.
Sadly, one of these tales is more compelling than the other. Bernal’s performance as Peluchonneau is tremendous, blending a delicate nuance into a deeply complex character. His pursuit of Neruda is where the film draws the most of its excitement, which results in the moments with Neruda himself being far less interesting. Whenever the film attempts to get conventional, it is a complete bore, and the character of Neruda himself becomes secondary to the fictional chase. This would not necessarily be an issue, but the frequent return to Neruda’s life and actions consistently stop the film in its tracks, and prevent it from reaching its potential.
It is tricky to criticize a film like Neruda too much; there is such a clear and noticeable effort that went into it. However, while something like Jackie (which I also found underwhelming) manages to beautifully convey the feelings and value of its main character, Neruda really struggles, leaving the meat of its narrative on the sidelines. It looks beautiful, and has moments that inspire, but the film is too convoluted to ever fully come together.