How does one make a film about Chilean poet Pablo Neruda? The man’s life and body of work is too lyrical, too complex for a simple biopic. With his exuberant visual poem Neruda, director Pablo Larraín embraces the life, the poetry, and the politics of Pablo Neruda.
Neruda does not attempt tell the full story of the poet’s life and work. Instead, it focuses – if that’s a word that can be used for such an intricate, wandering film – on a pivotal section of Neruda’s life. After publicly protesting the government’s imprisonment of Communist mine workers, Neruda (Luis Gnecco) faces persecution from an increasingly dictatorial regime and is forced into hiding, moving from safe house to safe house with his wife Delia (Mercedes Moràn). He’s always one step ahead of the Chilean police and the investigation headed by Oscar Peluchoneau (Gael Garcia Bernal), who will become Neruda’s shadow and anti-hero. As Neruda moves around with the assistance of Communist friends, he leaves behind pulp detective novels for Oscar to find, a mocking trail of clues that brings the two ever closer together.
The plot hangs loosely on the film, for Larraín is more interested in creating a sense of characters, a visually poetic experience of cinema, than in telling a straightforward story. Such as it is, the plot primarily centers on the relationship between Neruda and Oscar, the hunted and the hunter continually shifting around each other, changing places as they chase through Chile.
Oscar functions as the narrator in extensive sections of voiceover, shaping the story in his own image even as events belie his self-proclaimed brilliant detective work. As played by Bernal, he’s a slightly ridiculous figure, an overly confident policeman who acts like he’s the hero of a dime store novel. He grows increasingly obsessed by Neruda, reading the books that the poet leaves behind, forming himself into an image of the pulp detective complete with fedora and silent, shadowy partner. A provocative shift in the final third of the film draws the relationship between Oscar and Neruda into relief, as the influence of the poet’s writing begins to inform upon reality itself.
Neruda occupies a strange, difficult to define cinematic space. The refrain of Neruda’s poetry runs throughout the film, especially “Tonight I Can Write (The Saddest Lines).” The fragmented, imagery-laden poetry forms the blueprint for the movie’s structure. Fragmented editing and the occasional disregard of continuity rules reflects an influence of surrealism, evident at the beginning of the film where Neruda addresses the Chilean Senate, congregated in a men’s restroom. The archaic color palette – full of purples, oranges, and greens – emphasizes the film as a product of the past, a different reality that the writer has brought to life with his poetry. There’s even an element of vaudeville slapstick in scenes where the clumsy Neruda attempts to mount a horse, or dresses as a prostitute to evade the police.
Neruda acts as a subversive trickster figure throughout, throwing on disguises as he moves across the country. He writes long poems and sends them to friends and party members, continuing to disseminate his writing even as the government cracks down on Communism. His duty, as he sees it, is to the people of Chile, to be their poet and their representative, and to raise them up with his words. He mocks the government, driving past the President’s home and honking the horn late at night, and refuses to leave the country lest the people believe he has abandoned them.
In Gnecco’s breathless, satyr-like performance, it is Neruda’s exuberance, his love of life and the Chilean people, that elevates him above pettier men like Oscar. Even in exile he smiles, strips, drinks, and dances, whispering poetry to prostitutes and lovers, typing feverishly on his portable typewriter, finally leaving the safety of his hideouts to walk among the people. Whether or not this is an accurate depiction of the real Neruda, it is an accurate depiction of his poetry, which the film argues belongs to the people of Chile.
Neruda is Chile’s entry into the Best Foreign Language category at this year’s Academy Awards – and it’s certainly a contender. Like the poet, it is an exciting, romantic film that embraces the complexity of its central characters, that tries to lay bare on the screen what Neruda accomplished on the page. Do not mistake this for a standard biopic – Neruda is so much more.
An exuberant visual poem reflecting the life and politics of the Chilean poet, Neruda is much more than a simple biopic.