Chilean director Pablo Larraín seems to be on a one-man mission to revolutionize the biopic genre. This year alone, there’s his “Jackie,” in which Natalie Portman plays an anemic Jackie Kennedy Onassis reeling in the immediate aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination. As beautifully fractured as a Louis XIV mirror, it’s a fascinating – if oddly superficial – glimpse into the making of the Camelot myth. Also landing Stateside this season is “Neruda,” Larraín’s Argentinian import about Pablo Neruda nee Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto (Luis Gnecco). The far stronger of the two films, it’s ostensibly about the pursuit of the exiled poet and politician, but really a long look at authorship itself – who owns a story, and, perhaps more importantly, who owns a storymaker.
Gael García Bernal stars as police inspector Óscar Peluchonneau, and his specter haunts the film even when he presides only in shadows and voiceover. With a natty mustache, a fedora, and a furrowed brow, he is in Earnest Mode, a welcome reprieve from the manic pixie dream boy roles he often plays in English and French-language films and television. Finely tuned and perpetually phony, Peluchonneau is the bastard son of a prostitute and the chief of police, and his self-construction is at least as poetic as that of Neruda, who, plodding and plotted, is the very definition of a champagne Communist here. In contrast, Peluchonneau is less of a detective than a detective novelist, with dreamy, gumshoe monologues and long, somber stares into the distance; even his surname seems like a metaphor. “Peluche” means stuffed animal toy in Spanish, which works, given that the policeman seems only to come to life in his quest to capture the poet.
Doughy and idly gluttonous, this Neruda also seems like a stuffed toy. In 1948, when President Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro) allies himself with the international war on communism, the Stalinist diplomat, politician, and poet goes into hiding along with his blue-blooded Argentinian wife Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán) to avoid a prison sentence. But as he moves through the countryside and various underbellies of Chilean society, he rarely seems to connect with the working poor; his emperor costume at a high-society lefty party seems more apt than ironic. In fact, of the two of them, it is Peluchonneau who tends to register social inequities more feelingly. Yet on the rare occasions that Neruda drops his many disguises – ennui being chief among them – he shows great care for his compatriots. Here is a man who, as Videla says, “could pull a piece of a paper out of his pocket and 10,000 workers would go silent to hear him recite poetry in that voice of his.” In those moments, the film stops short – and then rearranges itself around him. In one exquisitely rendered tableau – a smeary watercolor of sorts – a transgendered brothel singer testifies with a raw wonder about how Neruda recognized her personhood with such compassion and clarity that she felt transcended by his words.
Less a biopic than a noir metafiction, “Neruda” unfailingly calls attention to its own composition. There’s a whiff of Hitchcock in the craftwork – in its rear projection of intentionally fake-looking car chases, in its double framing – and an even bigger reference to the lonely beauty of Edward Hopper’s paintings, especially as smoke curls around these characters through dark, looming windows. For this, director of photography Sergio Armstrong deserves great credit, especially as he wisely contrasts this deliberate artificiality with long, sweeping panoramas through the country’s most decadent interiors as well its fields and mountains. “The Andes are a second ocean; they make Chile an island,” murmurs the policeman, and the grandeur of these landscapes back up what otherwise would be painfully bad poetry.
Delia – whom Pablo treats gently if dispassionately – best explains the policeman’s role in her husband’s narrative. “He created you as the guard of an imaginary border,” she says. “He thinks about you thinking about him.” The policeman agrees: “His art gave me a life,” he says. “I was made of paper and now I am made of blood.” If such lines seem unlikely, they make more sense when we realize all these characters read as inventions of Neruda himself, who espouses far less than he observes here – usually with a pained, bemused expression and hands stuffed in his pockets or idly stroking a prostitute’s breast.
Larraín has described this film as “Nerudian” in press notes, and he’s right. This is not a portrait of a poet so much as a visual poem generated by the writer’s legacy and spirit. It is a teleportation that reminds us that only suffering puts life into true focus.
This was originally published on Signature.