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      Neruda Review

      Neruda poster

      Neruda

      Justin Chang, Chicago Tribune

      Los Angeles Times

      "Neruda," an intoxicating puzzle of a movie directed by Pablo Larrain, chronicles a strange, harrowing episode from the late 1940s, when the Chilean government's crackdown on communism drove the great poet and politician Pablo Neruda underground. Specifically, the film unravels the tricky game of cat-and-mouse between Neruda and an ambitious police inspector named Oscar Peluchonneau, who sought to track down the dissident artist whose writings had struck a dangerously resonant chord with the working class.

      There was, in fact, no Oscar Peluchonneau -- or, at least, none who fits the description blithely concocted by Larrain and his screenwriter, Guillermo Calderon. The charm of "Neruda" lies in its insistence that there may well have been, and that it scarcely matters if there wasn't. Drolly and persuasively, the movie demonstrates that when it comes to evoking the artist and the nature of his art, historical fidelity and literal-minded dramatization go only so far. Fiction, lovingly and imaginatively rendered, can bring us much closer to the truth.

      "We must dream our way," Neruda once wrote, and it is nothing short of enchanting to encounter a biographical drama that, rather than merely shoving that quote into its protagonist's mouth, treats it as a guiding aesthetic and philosophical principle. Like (and yet completely unlike) "I'm Not There," Todd Haynes' fragmented 2007 cine-riff on Bob Dylan, "Neruda" is less a straightforward portrait of a great contemporary poet (and eventual Nobel laureate) than a rigorously sustained investigation of his inner world.

      Although informed by the busy workings of history, politics and personal affairs, "Neruda" proceeds like a light-footed chase thriller filtered through an episode of "The Twilight Zone," by the end of which the audience is lost in a crazily spiraling meta-narrative. Who exactly is the star and author of that narrative is one of the film's more enticing mysteries.

      From the opening scene, a political gathering wittily set in an enormous public lavatory, Neruda (Luis Gnecco), a senator and member of the Chilean Communist Party, is shown to be a proud and vociferous critic of his country's leadership. But in the very next sequence, a lavish party crammed with half-naked revelers, the film presents the idea of Neruda as a Champagne socialist -- a vain, hedonistic hypocrite who, like so many left-wing elites, loves "to soak up other people's sweat and suffering."

      That damning bit of mockery is delivered by the aforementioned detective, Oscar Peluchonneau (played with mustachioed elan by Gael Garcia Bernal), who slyly complicates the film's notions of authorship and agency. When Chilean President Gabriel Gonzalez Videla (Alfredo Castro) outlaws communism in 1948, responding to mounting Cold War anxieties, Peluchonneau eagerly leads the manhunt for Neruda, who has gone into hiding in the port city of Valparaiso with his second wife, the painter Delia del Carril (Mercedes Moran, excellent).

      Many of the individual scenes in "Neruda" serve a fairly clear narrative purpose. We see the poet consorting with his allies, arguing with his wife, and disobeying his party-appointed bodyguard (Michael Silva) to slip out for a frolic at a brothel or bohemian enclave. We rarely see him writing, though his poems are shown being secretly distributed and playing a huge role in keeping the communist movement alive underground. But even these relatively simple moments are transformed and complicated by the audacity of Larrain's stylistic conceits.

      In the hands of the editor Herve Schneid, an extended conversation between two people might span three or four different locations, transporting the viewer without warning from a private room to a perch overlooking the Chilean countryside.

      In one of Larrain and Calderon's most telling flourishes, it is Peluchonneau who provides the film's running voice-over commentary, often in contrapuntal harmony with Neruda's journey.

      Peluchonneau's words may be sardonic and self-flattering, but as the film advances and his own footing in the narrative begins to shift, they also take on their own mysterious, downright Nerudian poetry.

      "Neruda's" formal spryness and nontraditional appreciation of history will come as little surprise to admirers of "Jackie," Larrain's other great bio-experiment of the moment, or his 2012 drama, "No," a compelling snapshot of the end of the Augusto Pinochet regime that also starred Bernal (with Gnecco and Castro in prominent supporting roles).

      "Neruda" keeps the man at a playful distance, firm in its belief that the art will sustain our interest, long after the passing of the artist and his historical moment.

      MPAA rating: R (for sexuality, and nudity and some language)

      Running time: 1:47

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