Octavio Paz never ceased to admire Pablo Neruda as a poet, but he was profoundly disappointed in the Chilean’s unyielding adherence to Stalinism. No doubt, the Mexican Nobel Laureate would also be greatly troubled by Pablo Larraín ostensibly cinematic portrait and its eagerness to gloss the historical record. To its credit, the Academy’s foreign language division declined shortlist Chile’s official submission, Larraín’s bizarrely over-hyped Neruda, which opens today in New York.
By the late 1930s, the world generally understood the nature of the Moscow Show Trials, except for those who willfully maintained their ignorance. In 1946, Neruda still clung to his blinkered world view, which provided radical leftist President Gonzalez Videla a handy excuse when he turned on Neruda and the Communist Party, as part of power struggle to control the Chilean leftwing. Neruda, a sitting senator at the time, was exiled, becoming the toast of Soviet-aligned and fellow-traveling political circles.
In Larraín’s Borgesean distortion, before Neruda could reach the adoring receptions abroad, he spent months underground, eluding the Javert-like police prefect Oscar Peluchonneau, his nemesis and possible post-modern alter-ego. Frankly, Larraín’s film is not even competent hagiography, depicting Neruda as a nauseatingly self-indulgent hedonist, who spends more time in brothels than the average Game of Thrones character. Where is the late, great Philippe Noiret when we need him?
Neruda has been described as a film noir take on Neruda and his legend. That is apt enough if they mean the noir Terrence Malick had the decency to never make. If you enjoy overwrought, risibly puffed-up voiceovers than Neruda will be like having Christmas and the Super Bowl on the same day.
For the rest of us, Neruda is just embarrassingly self-important, self-aggrandizing, self-righteous, self-absorbed, and utterly un-self-aware. This is the sort of klutzy pretention critics would ordinarily snark off the screen, but in this case, it is protected by its extreme leftist ideology.