The truth about Pablo Larraín’s Neruda is that you’ll learn very little about the subject of its title, the Chilean poet-diplomat and politico Pablo Neruda. You won’t learn much about the context in which Larraín has set the film, either, though he lays out the basic, barest details at the start for our edification. You will, however, appreciate being swept up in Larraín’s impressionistic interpretations of Neruda’s humanity and his flight and exile from Chile in the late 1940s, because if Larraín is good at anything, it’s drilling all the way down to the cores of very real people through witty mythologizing, as proven in his second (and by far more major) December release, the Jackie Onassis biopic Jackie.
Neruda is cut from the same creative cloth as that film despite the gulf of cultural and political differences that separate the two. They’re both biopics that dare to break from formula, eschewing the basic structure and expectations of the category to be artsy fartsy and, in the case of Neruda, willfully elliptical as well. The script, written by Guillermo Calderón (who also wrote the script for February’s The Club, the first Larraín movie to hit theaters in 2016), is loaded with flowery declarations that ring with profundity but little clarity. (“Being with you is beautiful,” a character proclaims at one point. “It’s like living on a tree-lined street.” The turn of phrase delights the ear as much as it boggles the mind.) It’s stuff and nonsense, and yet all of that stuff and nonsense is precisely what makes Neruda, a living poem given shape and form through cinema, so darn good.
A bit of basic, boiled-down context for the film’s narrative: In 1946, Gabriel González Videla, the presidential candidate for Chile’s Radical Party, courted the Communist Senator Neruda to act as his campaign manager, and Neruda, understandably comfortable with the support shown Videla from the country’s left wing, accepted. After Videla won the election, though, he quarreled with the Chilean Communist Party, first expelling them from his cabinet, then banning them entirely via the Permanent Defense of Democracy Law, going so far as to round up miners participating in a Communist-led strike in 1947 and lock them away in concentration camps. Larraín doesn’t delve too explicitly into these events with Neruda, mostly because they occur off-screen before the film begins, but sociopolitical anxiety hangs over his plot nonetheless.
Larraín is chiefly interested in staging the “fabulous chase” Videla’s government embarked on to capture Neruda (played by Luis Gnecco), who went on the lam with his wife, Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), and stayed there for a year and some change before he left the country and made tracks for Paris. This is appropriate to Larraín’s sentiment toward the biopic: Rather than tell a great or famous person’s entire life story, condensed down to two hours, he instead recreates a specific time in their life story, and so his plots breathe more than the standard issue fare that makes up the bulk of the biopic category. It helps, too, that Larraín is enigmatically inclined, and that Neruda by its very nature embraces both mystery and allusion. By consequence you will, as the story expands, wonder how much to trust our narrators, not just Larraín but also one Oscar Peluchonneau.
Peluchonneau is played by Gael García Bernal, who worked on Larraín’s No, his 2012 film about an adman hired to work on behalf of the campaign to boot General Augusto Pinochet from power in a 1988 referendum. Neruda sees Bernal working on the opposite side of the political aisle, serving as the prefect tasked by Videla to hunt Neruda down, capture him, and bring him to the tender mercies of the government. Sans a “face” character to represent Chilean authority, Neruda would rust out and grow tedious. Bernal’s very presence here ties the whole film together, adding tragicomic layers to its lilting tone and opaque storytelling style. Peluchonneau is so off-handedly funny, so sadly, laughably braggadocious, that we almost come to root for him the way that one roots for a cat to catch its own tail. (You may even wish Larrain had just made the whole movie about him. He’s a fabulously quixotic character.)
But is Peluchonneau real? According to history, no. According to Neruda, well, that would give away too much of the film’s mystery. Suffice to say that before all is revealed, you’ll wonder if Larraín is having a go at his audience or if Neruda is having a go at his pursuer, and you may lose sight of where Neruda, the movie, begins and Neruda, the man, ends. The film’s blend of reality with metafiction is delectable. If it does go on a few minutes too long, it justifies its rambling with one of 2016’s loveliest climactic set pieces, a snow-capped encounter between Neruda and Peluchonneau staged in the language of Western movies, and if any contemporary filmmaker deserves our permission to ramble, it’s Larraín. He’s the kind of director who appears to make a path by walking, whether in The Club, or in Jackie, or in Neruda, which all feel improvised by degrees. Each film has a plan, each film has a backbone, but their airy and ethereal qualities suggest a penchant for riffing, as though he’s filling in the gaps between truth and myth sequence by sequence.
Case in point: Neruda’s opening scene, where Neruda walks into a bathroom stuffed full of aging politicians, each waiting his turn at the urinals to take a leak in between arguments. It’s perhaps the best visual metaphor for Larraín’s political sentiments, a tableau of crotchety men pissing away their words in a private space where no one can hear them bitch. (For an American audience, the dialogue here may feel a little too real. “You elected him!” one chap cries at Neruda in reply to his diatribe against Videla. “We all elected him, Senator,” comes Neruda’s cool retort. “Regrettably, we all did. All of us idiots in this room elected him.”) It’s a bit of cheek to start off a movie that wrestles with the soul of art itself, so much so that the profound conclusions Larraín arrives at may take you by the utmost surprise.
Director: Pablo Larraín
Writer: Guillermo Calderón
Starring: Luis Gnecco, Gael García Bernal, Mercedes Morán
Release Date: Dec. 16, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.