I admit to knowing less about how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences settles on its five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film than I do about the other major awards, so when I say I don’t understand how Neruda wasn’t nominated for the honor while A Man Called Ove was, I mean that quite literally. Not only is Neruda a smarter and better film, but I find it hard to accept that a large number of movie industry people saw both and said, hey, the mawkish claptrap about the grumpy old man is the better choice. (Neruda is available to rent on amazon and iTunes.)
Neruda, Chile’s submission for the prize for 2016, was directed by Pablo Larrain, who also directed Jackie, which earned Natalie Portman a well-deserved Best Actress nomination. It’s a fictional story that stars the very real and very famous Chilean poet, Senator, and dissident Pablo Neruda’s flight from an anti-communist government in Chile in 1948, first in exile within his country and eventually in France. Through the movie, he’s pursued by the obsessed detective/inspector Oscar Peluchonneau, but Neruda has a strange plan in place, taunting the inspector with copies of books and handwritten notes while always remaining one step ahead of his predator.
As a chase film, Neruda stinks, so don’t rent this one looking for high adventure; there’s more comedy in the cops’ regular failures to find Neruda, even when he’s right under their noses. This is a far more philosophical work, one that is even structured like a poem, and that meditates openly on the nature of character and even on whether we are ‘real’ or merely the fictional products of someone else’s imagination.
Larrain has adopted a specific visual style here, where he cuts conversations up by settings, so that characters in the middle of a deep dialogue will suddenly shift positions, rooms, even ending up outside, but appear oblivious to the change in scenery. Part of this seemed to be an attempt to mimic the free verse of Neruda’s poetry, while it also seemed to underline the metafictional aspects of the story – that is, since these jumps are clearly not possible in reality, are we to suspect that other portions, even entire characters, are not real, but are merely projections of the creative genius of Neruda.
The title character is played by Luis Gnecco as a corpulent, arrogant libertine, as sure of his flight plan as he is of his literary talent, and not above the occasional champagne-soaked orgy. (There’s something inherently amusing about a man who is overweight and balding attracting women in twos and threes by virtue of his words.) He brings two voices to Neruda, one for regular dialogue, one for his poems and speeches, a gearshift for a character who, in reality, was certainly aware of his public profile and eager to play a role in his country’s history.
Oscar, played by Gael García Bernal, is the more demanding role, however, as the cop undergoes an existential crisis during an assignment that will make his career or end it in humiliation. He plays it with the veneer of the noir detective, dashing in suit and hat, betraying little emotion, always confident that the next raid will corner his prey, but little details in the performance and even his look – the unmade ties, the collar askew – show the doubt beneath the surface. In a story that truly has just two characters and focuses on the dance between them that keeps them apart until the final few scenes, García Bernals performance was literally essential, giving life to a film that could have descended into caricature or farce.
Neruda is in Spanish, and a little French, with English subtitles, which I only mention because I’m fairly sure I lost some of the benefits of understanding Neruda’s speeches and poems in the original language because I was also reading the English to make sure I didn’t miss anything important. I can understand a little Spanish, but apparently the letter “s” is banned in Chile, so I found much of the dialogue hard to grasp. Perhaps I’ll need to see about a sabbatical in Santiago; I hear they have good food there.
The real Neruda’s flight was far less daring or courageous; he was smuggled from house to house for three years, didn’t appear in public, didn’t taunt his pursuers, and eventually fled to Argentina and then France on a friend’s passport. He also earned criticism within his lifetime for his refusal to condemn communist leaders who suppressed journalists and other writers, putting party over principle, so to speak. This film version, while flawed in his personal life and his general arrogance, is far more heroic than the actual Chilean was. It’s a forgivable offense because of what it brings us in the interplay between him and Oscar, who turns out to be the real star of the show.