Reading the poetry of Pablo Neruda evokes a feeling not unlike dancing. The Chilean wordsmith’s works exist somewhere between the sensual and surreal, etched elegantly in ink but composed with such passion that their pages seem alive, as if imbued with their creator’s lifeblood. Part of the magic of reading Neruda is in that irrepressible verve his writing so often communicates: in the sensation that its consumer and composer are of a kind in their mutual appreciation of the urgency of the prose.
Neruda, by the Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín, is put together much like its protagonist’s poetry. It’s a persistently creative, sometimes phantasmagorical rumination not on Neruda himself (to call the film a biopic would be an unfortunate, if understandable error), but on the nature of his legend.
To wit, the film’s opening scenes find the poet (portrayed by Luis Gnecco) on the verge of a defining moment. An established leftist politician whose silver tongue and sterling reputation affords him considerable sway over the Chilean working class, Neruda circa 1948 has become a fierce critic of the increasingly authoritarian President Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro). But when Videla bans the Communist party that Neruda represents in the Chilean Senate, issuing warrant for the poet’s arrest, their ideological differences escalate, and Neruda goes into hiding.
As such, and to his evident pleasure, Neruda’s writing becomes the literary nourishment of the resistance – in Videla’s words, “he could pull a piece of a paper out of his pocket and ten thousand workers would go silent to hear him recite poetry in that voice of his.”
Blurring the lines between fact and fiction as if blending paint on a palette, Neruda colors its narrative by inventing into this tumultuous period in Neruda’s life a nemesis for the poet. Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), an extraordinarily fruitful creation of the filmmakers, is the iron fist of authority to Neruda’s hedonistic liberalism. A humorless police inspector bent on capturing Neruda before he escapes through the Andes Mountains to Argentina, he’s also the kind of oppositional force Neruda needs to sustain his restless mind.
And in a brilliant maneuver by Larraín and screenwriter Guillermo Calderón, Neruda himself admits to being aware of this. He may, in fact, have conjured Peluchonneau from the fog of imagination, breathing some grand metaphor into complex, confused life.
“He created you as the guard of an imaginary border,” Neruda’s long-suffering wife Delia (Mercedes Morán) tells the inspector at one point. “He thinks about you thinking about him.”
As the film unspools, with Neruda edging closer to escape in a dreamlike third act set across the snow-coated Andes, it seems that she could be right. In voice-over that floats through scenes in which the inspector plays no active role, Peluchonneau provides self-serious ruminations on identity and purpose. But his often-poetic thoughts only cement the inspector as a tragicomic stereotype, defined and ultimately deconstructed by his obsession with his quarry.
Neruda seems uninterested in making a definitive ruling on the true nature of the inspector – or any other character for that matter. What matters more than concrete answers are the tricky explorations of myth and meaning that his presence allows the film to undertake. Neruda is about artistic expression as the natural enemy of the state, and the threat of repression as a condition necessary for its ultimate triumph. It posits the poet’s physical and theoretical adversaries as the fire he personally requires to germinate seeds buried deep within his consciousness. And in subtler ways, it’s about the essential unknowability of an artist like Neruda, even to himself.
To put it another way, Larraín and Calderón have constructed an impish, ingenious, and intellectually rich puzzle of a film, one that’s difficult and demanding by design. They’re aided in its execution both by mesmerizing, sometimes celestial cinematography from Sergio Armstrong that only intensifies with the growing magical realism of the film’s conclusion.
Neruda also soars on the strengths of its remarkable cast. Despite appearing in almost no scenes together, Gnecco and Bernal – both excellent, and placed in constant juxtaposition by the script – exhibit a curious kind of chemistry. The former, a vibrant and larger-than-life figure whose sensuality is largely verbal, stands in sharp contrast to the latter, a man defined not by his impulses but by strict adherence to authority he simultaneously yearns to harness. The two performers play up that duality in ways quiet and extravagant.
Meanwhile, in a marvelously layered turn, Moran communicates all the heartbreak and stoicism of a woman who’s resigned herself to being a supporting character in the life of a man more betrothed to his all-important self-image and public face than any romantic partner.
In examining its subject more as an artistic symbol than a mortal man, Neruda never completely gets inside the poet’s head. Were the film a traditional biopic, one might call that a failure. But what Larraín and Calderón are playing at is something far more complicated, and less stringently measured. Their Neruda is a mystical figure, culled from classic ideals of sensuality, passion, and performance. And their Neruda is a film befitting him, a pensive yet playful work of poetry concerned with the same universal, unknowable ideas of purpose and legacy with which every artist – Neruda included – must eventually reconcile themselves.