When it comes to directors making an impact on me in 2016, there’s none that rank higher than Pablo Lorrain, a filmmaker I was completely unfamiliar with at the beginning of the year. Over the course of the last while I have seen three of his films, starting with The Club – a story dealing with a halfway house of disgraced priests in a small Chilean village. The film was astoundingly gripping and had me praising his work, looking forward to the next piece. In December I saw what is getting the most attention, his biopic Jackie, a film starring Natalie Portman as the former first lady Jackie Kennedy, something that is earning best actress buzz in Hollywood right now. Before that, I saw another one of his biopics at the Vancouver International Film Festival, Neruda, a movie that isn’t exactly a play by numbers story.
What may look like a straight forward biopic of the beloved poet and also hated political pariah is really anything but, as Neruda plays with the writer’s surreal nature making the filmmaking just as unusual. The story is told through two characters with juxtaposed views. Pablo Neruda himself, just as he becomes a political fugitive in his own birth country, hunted down by all forms of government officials. Hot on his trail is the other lead, a brash but stupidly headstrong inspector played by Gael Garcia Bernal, who’s obsession with the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet is a blend of envy and jealousy. As the distance between cat and mouse becomes smaller and smaller, Neruda’s resolve never wavers, while the inspector starts to question everything, including his own existance.
There’s no way to put this lightly, as Neruda was the straw that broke my love for Lorrain’s work this year, easily my most disliked of his work. Expecting a detailed biography of a controvesial but celebrated figure of history, the strange story that takes place in this film was, for me, far less than satisfying. The story meanders too far into incoherance and artfulness in place of exposition and it was very hard to pull anything of worth out of the final product besides beautiful shots from The Club’s cinematographer Sergio Armstrong. Coincidentally, he also shot Nasty Baby, a film that really got me at last year’s film festival.
The performances are solid in Neruda, whether they make sense or not. Bernal has always proven himself to be a strong lead but I was uninitiated to Luis Gnecco, an actor quite popular in Chile but, besides a small role in the Netflix series Narcos, largely unknown to a North American audience. His portrayal of Pablo Neruda is larger than life, but an understanding of a man with many different facets to his existence is hard to glean from this film. In the end, I was left unsure of what Lorrain was trying to accomplish, although I seem to be in a small minority of critics who didn’t absorb this film. I am not giving up on this amazing Chilean director, as he has immense filmmaking to give, but Neruda is one that did not stick for me. 2/5