A crisis counselor is sent by the Catholic Church to a small Chilean beach town where disgraced priests and nuns, suspected of crimes ranging from child abuse to baby-snatching from unwed mothers, live secluded, after an incident occurs.
This is a fictional plot around the very real character of Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet who, during the 1940's, had also been a senator in the Chilean congress on behalf of the communist party. The film is set in 1948, when the authorities crack down on communists - a time that may be viewed as a chilling precursor to 1970's Pinochet - and the basic plot is about Neruda's escapes from the police, endeavors that force him all over Chile. Luis Gnecco as Neruda is fantastic and so is Mercedes Morán as Delia, Neruda's aristocratic wife. At one level, the film offer a troubling inquiry into the personality of this esteemed poet-intellectual-communist. He is an admired spokesperson for the workers and the downtrodden but he is also a hedonistic drunk and a spoiled womanizer; rough and gentle, strong and weak, Neruda's character and image keeps shifting, and it is to the credit of this film that it never for a moment tries to offer a solution to these complexities. In one memorable episode, a waitress asks Neruda, as he sits at a club-restaurant surrounded by his intellectual-hedonistic friends, suffused with alcohol, whether equality means that everyone will live like he does or whether it means that he, Neruda, will settle for less. I shall not disclose his response.
The camera-work covers a wide range of scenes, from film-noire urban settings to stunning snow covered terrains, all very precisely accompanied by period costumes, designs, motorcycles and horses. However the film aspires, and succeeds, to be by far more than a good period piece. Rather, it is a film about obsession. The psychological roots of this obsession are only hinted to, and this is a good thing too. And the obsessed is Gael García Bernal, playing the detective who relentlessly pursues Neruda. His performance is nothing short of stunning. As the film progresses, and it never rests for a moment, we gradually lose, alongside the characters in the film, any firm grip on reality. Just like in captivating poetic gestures, it becomes less and less clear what is real and what is fiction, what is an event and what is a fantasmatic representation of it, who is a character that actually acts and who is an imaginary ghost. And this is the film's most important achievement.
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