To say that Pablo Larraín has a talent for biographical filmmaking would be an understatement. What he does with the genre is much more interesting than a strict documentation of a person or a period in their life. In Neruda, Larraín’s film about the Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda, he takes the skeleton of a biography and twists it into a detective story turned mythological tale; so spellbinding that it seems implausible that it could resemble anything close to the truth.
It tells the story of Chilean politician and poet, Pablo Neruda, and his escape from the country after facing potential arrest from the government for his communist ideals. The film documents the police’s chase of Neruda, with the pesky poet always remaining one step ahead of them.
Going into the film, I knew fairly little about Chile’s political history and even less about the eponymous protagonist. I felt that to look for facts in Neruda would be a waste of time; time that could be better spent immersed in the faux-reality of Larraín’s wondrous creation. Based on a little bit of background research post-screening, the film paints a startling portrait of pre-coup Chile, if not necessarily an accurate one.
Gael Garcia Bernal plays Oscar Peluchonneau: the inept police officer on the hunt for Neruda. He plays his character with an excellent sense of comedic timing, and yet still manages to bring an intense sadness to it. Neurotic Peluchonneau contrasts well against Luis Gnecco’s almost easy-going interpretation of Pablo.
The way Larraín and scriptwriter Guillermo Calderon play with fiction and non-fiction is fascinating. Not only do they stretch the bounds of biography, but they also play with narrative structure, too. The voiceover throughout the film at first feels disembodied, until it is revealed that it belongs to Pelochonneau, who becomes obsessed with Neruda, forcing Neruda to become reciprocally obsessed with him. For this fictionalised version of the poet’s story, the excitement of being a fugitive is essential in his willingness to be one. He always needs to feel like he is being chased, that the police could be only one step behind him, and without this, the film would be lacking in pace. Peluchonneau is always trying to prove himself; to prove his own existence. This subject of his existence adds an element to the film that is, at times, slightly confusing, but ultimately beautiful and poetic.
Another thing that is hugely important in our enjoyment of Neruda, is perhaps, how relevant the story feels. Set in mid-40s Chile, amongst political turmoil, we see starving children in the street while wealthy politicians gorge on lustrous feasts in their palaces. A president is elected under the pretense of false promises.
Neruda is painted as a ladies man – a poet desired by many. His relationship with his wife is tender, but something is amiss. He is almost a symbol of hope for the working classes, but this symbol cannot live up to the reality.
At one point, Pablo Neruda is asked if he wants to go down in history. This question sits with me throughout, shaping a new lens through which we see the film. By creating this mythology around Neruda, Larraín reinforces his subject’s place in history, while cementing himself as one of the most interesting storytellers working today.