Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is one of the most famous poets in the world, but has found himself in hot water after making derogatory comments about the President of his home nation Chile, not respecting him in the slightest. Compounding the issue is that Neruda declared himself a Communist some time before, and the new government does not only disagree with this in immediately post-war South America, but has sought to outlaw such thinking with a crackdown that has seen many citizens imprisoned or even executed for not agreeing with the politics of the authorities. Now he has to go underground while remaining a high-profile celebrity - a tricky situation no matter which way you cut it.
Neruda was one of director Pablo Larraín's historical, twenty-first century-set films which were rapidly becoming what he was best known for in cinema, though this was overshadowed internationally by his first English language effort Jackie which was released within months of it. That was an examination of what the First Lady goes through when the President is assassinated, and though there was some postulation it stuck to the essential truth of the account, yet here the script from Guillermo Calderón, making his second film with Larraín after The Club, played around with the facts of the poet's troubles with his government and subsequent flight from the country, to the extent of inventing a whole new person.
He was played by the man first-billed, Gael García Bernal, as the police detective Oscar Peluchonneau who represented the forces who would seek to suppress Neruda, yet in an item of trickery not only never existed, but as the story wore on he came to realise he was a fictional character who may well have been invented by the poet to make him look more of a romantic fugitive. Others seem to be aware of the cop's false status too, and we note he never seems to successfully arrest, never mind convict, any of those he is after, not only his main quarry but also the men and women who have been supporting him in his escape. Thus you began to wonder if this was a movie about Pablo Neruda at all, or simply a subterfuge.
To what end, however? This was more a meditation on the actual artist's dilemma than it was a faithful rendering of what he went through when the authorities were out for his blood, so we had the characters pondering the exact nature of hunter versus hunted, concluding that to pursue someone with such dedication was more important for the hunter, their obsession being more like a one-sided love affair where the pursuer would pore over every detail of the life of the pursued, in a curious way strung along by the person who has taken up so much of their life. Indeed, Oscar spends every waking moment thinking about his supposed enemy, much like a teenager in the first flush of romance, except we know his obsession will never be sated since there is no chance it will be reciprocated in kind.
As far as the plot went, it was purely an excuse to throw up these philosophical and social comments and leave them for the audience to mull over as they appreciated Larraín's way with an attractive image, or at least a striking one. Neruda is no saint, and with Oscar narrating we are offered the differing perspective from what in other hands would have been hagiography, plus such scenes as the one where one of his fans, a poor woman more likely to be called a peasant than the bourgeois poet, confronts him in a manner both respectful and accusatory about what kind of better world this notion of equality will bring - equality on whose terms, basically. As the chase moves to the south of Chile and those mountain ranges, the film turned into a Western, not exactly Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but with comparable imagery, while we were left to muse about how correct Oscar could have been in his assessments, from the start of the film to the end. Rich with themes, this looked handsome, was an entertaining thriller of sorts, yet the feeling of being messed about lingered. Music by Federico Jusid.
[Network's DVD does justice to the film's sumptuous appearance, and has an interview with Larraín and Bernal as an extra.]