Chile's entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2017 Academy Awards is "Neruda", an unusual biopic of the iconic poet Pablo Neruda who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. Pablo Larrain's film covers Neruda's life on the run in Chile in 1948, three years after the end of World War II, and his eventual escape into Argentina.
Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is a celebrated poet and a Senator for the Chilean Communist Party. He and his second wife, artist Delia del Carril (Mercedes Moran), entertain lavishly in their rather bohemian abode and enjoy the fruits of Neruda's notoriety. When President Gabriel Gonzalez Videla (Alfredo Castro) condemns communism, an arrest warrant is issued for Neruda.
It becomes the mission of police inspector Oscar Peluchoneau (Gael Garcia Bernal) to find and capture Pablo Neruda at all costs --- both professionally and personally. For months Oscar tracks Neruda from the homes of friends to brothels, on to the port city of Valparaiso, and finally through the snowy mountain pass leading to Argentina.
"Neruda" is a brilliant study of a man's passion for life and poetry. Delia explains that her husband loves "sex, crime and violence". Oscar, who narrates the film, states that his adoring followers want to "kiss him, hold his hand and sleep in his bed". He was not an especially attractive man, but his charm and gift for beautiful writing made him desirable to all who met him.
One particular scene exemplifies Neruda's allure when a man in drag, whom Oscar has arrested, describes his encounter with Neruda in a seedy club. This man was singing and while everyone else jeered at the singer, calling him names, Neruda spoke with him, sang with him, and encouraged his art. Watching him relate his story, with his open contempt for Oscar, is telling of how the average person truly felt about Neruda and his renderings written with "human respect", especially for fellow artists and the politically imprisoned.
Gnecco brings this eccentric, beloved poet to life with wit and panache. Whether he's reciting Neruda's work in his "poet's" voice or hugging a street urchin to whom he gives away his newly tailored coat, Gnecco embodies the spirit of this communist crusader whose poetry rallied the poor and disenfranchised. It's a marvelous performance.
Though not always a Bernal fan, as Oscar he is well cast. He exudes just the right amount of false superiority --- and smarminess that this fictional character deserves. Oscar's determination to catch the elusive poet is both pathetic and amusing. He believes bringing Neruda to justice will catapult his own fame, and the grandiose way Bernal portrays Oscar makes the cat-and-mouse game devised by Larrain all the more believable.
Larrain also directed "Jackie", his first English-language film, starring Natalie Portman in an Oscar-worthy performance. Though each of these two productions are, in a sense, biopics, they could not be more different. However, both efforts are outstanding works of art.
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