Gael Garcia Bernal in Neruda

Regular readers are no doubt familiar with my general aversion to watching (and, of course, reviewing) biopics, but the release schedule gods are rarely concerned with my personal cinematic preferences. Accordingly, they’ve determined that my very first review of 2017 should be for Neruda, a biopic opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Jan. 13.

Before watching this film, my knowledge of poet Pablo Neruda was about as shallow as it gets. Beyond knowing he was a left-wing South American versifier who died under mysterious circumstances, I couldn’t have told you anything about his life or work.

I know a bit more now: in addition to being a communist poet beloved by the Chilean people, Pablo Neruda was also a senator and libertine forced to flee his native land during a post-war anti-leftist crackdown. Further periods of his life remain unexamined in director Pablo Larraín’s film, as Neruda is set entirely during 1948 and early 1949 (though a special cameo appearance is made by a young army officer named Augusto Pinochet).

A quick post-screening perusal of Neruda’s Wikipedia entry suggests that, while Guillermo Calderón’s screenplay is a broadly accurate representation of his trip into exile, it also takes considerable liberties with some of the details. It is here that the film departs from standard biopic tropes, entering the realm of irreality via the character of Óscar Peluchonneau.

The entirely fictional Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal, sporting a moustache that makes him look like a spiv selling silk stockings in Soho to war-weary British women) is the police detective assigned the task of capturing Neruda (Luis Gnecco, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the lumpy Nobel-prize winner). Tireless and obsessive, Peluchonneau is ready to follow our hero to the ends of the Earth – or at least, to the ends of the mountainous passes through which he must make his escape to Argentina.

Bernal’s performance suggests he knows there is something of the fantastical about his character. Playing Peluchonneau as more Raymond Chandler private dick than Jack Webb just the facts ma’am incorruptible cop, he brings a broad, almost comedic touch to the role. Pushing things to the limit, Bernal almost tips over into self-parody, especially during some particularly silly scenes of him riding a motorbike (let’s just say he rode a hog better in The Motorcycle Diaries.)

Though cinematographer Sergio Armstrong tends to overdo things with a hyperactive Steadicam during the film’s first hour, his work calms and improves in the later going. This is in part thanks to the stunning natural beauty of the snowy Chilean mountains, which provide Neruda with unexpected echoes of Sergio Corbucci’s classic winter-set spaghetti western, Il Grande Silencio (The Great Silence).

In sum, Neruda’s fictive transgressions allow it to avoid the plodding recreations of the average biopic. Its release also comes at a time when accusations of treason and fellow-traveling are flying freely around these United States, lending the film relevance Larrain and Calderon surely didn’t intend or anticipate. Accordingly, it feels oddly contemporary.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...