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‘Neruda’ dissects the man behind the poems

First Published      Last Updated Mar 10 2017 01:50 pm

It's a shame, really, that "Neruda" doesn't touch the heart as elegantly as its titular poet's writing — but that's also the point of director Pablo Larrain's deconstructed look at the writer's all-too-human side.

Unlike Larrain's "Jackie," which built up the "Camelot" mythology of Jacqueline Kennedy, "Neruda" is about humanizing a legend by showing the artifice behind it. Larrain, a Chilean, shows his home country's most beloved poet, Pablo Neruda, at a particular point in his life — in the late 1940s, when the his writing, politics and personal life were set to collide.

When we meet Neruda — played by Luis Gnecco, a beloved comic actor in Chile — his poetry has taken a back seat to his political life. He's a senator, the best known member of Chile's Communist Party, in a running feud with Chile's president, Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro). When the president outlaws the Communist Party, to appease his benefactors in the Cold War-paranoid United States government, Neruda finds himself both out of office and a wanted man.



At first, Neruda refuses to flee, unwilling to give up the parties and prostitutes of Santiago's decadent artists' community. But his wife, Delia (Mercedes Morån), eventually persuades him to go into hiding. Ever the showman, Neruda plans a getaway worthy of a Hollywood movie — with himself as the roguish outlaw hero.

Every outlaw needs a ruthless lawman, and Neruda's is Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal), the bastard son of the founder of Chile's national police. Peluchonneau, in a crisply tailored suit and snappy fedora, is the perfect Javert to Neruda's Jean Valjean. Of course he is, because, as even Peluchonneau eventually discovers — in a more surreal touch in Guillermo Calderón's screenplay — the cop may be nothing more than a supporting player in Neruda's invented narrative.

Larrain juxtaposes Neruda's fanciful imagination with the harsh realities of Chile's Communist crackdown. (An interesting fact that Larrain and Calderón serve up is the identity of the army officer who ran the desert prison where Communist detainees were tortured: Augusto Pinochet, who in 1973 staged the coup against the elected Communist President Salvador Allende — and who, many believe, had Neruda poisoned days after Allende's death.) Larrain wryly comments on Neruda's self-aggrandizing mythmaking and how his appetites for food, wine, sex and praise made him a curious contradiction: an elitist Communist.

"Neruda" isn't filled with the writer's poetic words — there's a running gag about a poem he wrote 20 years earlier, which he now loathes but still frequently recites because it makes the ladies swoon. But its focus on the man who made that poetry is strong, sharp and insightful.

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AT A GLANCE

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‘Neruda’

A biting portrait of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, focusing more on his politics and personal life.

Where » Broadway Centre Cinemas.

When » Opens Friday, March 10.

Rating » R for sexuality/nudity and some language.

Running time » 107 minutes; in Spanish and French, with subtitles.


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