From the opening scene in which we see Pablo Neruda pissing in the Chilean Senate house, which strangely doubles as an opulent urinal, this unconventional biopic has the viewer deliciously off-balance.
The film is set in Santiago in 1948 at the beginning of the Cold War.
Famed poet and communist senator Neruda publically condemns the Chilean president for betraying the party and the working-class voters that had brought him to power. As a result, he is impeached and forced into hiding, fleeing from one safe house to the next, yet always managing to keep one step ahead of the authorities.
However, don’t let this brief plot summary fool you. This film is far from a traditional retelling of the poet’s life.
Viewers familiar with director Pablo Larrain’s past work, such as Jackie (about former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy) and No (the story of an ad man who devises a campaign to defeat Chilean dictator General Pinochet), will know that linear biography is not his style. Instead, Neruda is a deft combination of fiction and history, an imaginative piece of storytelling loosely informed by biographical facts.
At the heart of the film is the lyrical narrator, Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) as the detective on the hunt for Neruda (played by Luis Gnecco, who bears an incredible resemblance to the poet). The two become locked in a fabulous chase that, given the pursuing detective is entirely fictional, makes the narrative a compelling and at times confusing combination of myth and fact.
The result is a playful and powerful representation of a brief period in Neruda’s life. Unlike traditional biopics in which the character of the protagonist is deified, Neruda comes across as an idealistic communist and brilliant poet, yet this is offset by his intense egoism and hedonistic bourgeois habits.
Similarly, the detective Peluchonneau is anything but clichéd, his narration showing him to be torn between his artistic sensibilities and his professional obligations. Excited by the chase, he questions whether he’s the hero or the supporting character in this hunt. Both he and his quarry crave fame – one as a poet, the other for capturing him – but both come to realise that they are, in some way, each validating the other.
The performances are all outstanding. Gnecco as Neruda is completely believable in his entitled vanity and moments of passionate solidarity with the oppressed. Neruda’s second wife, Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), is a warm and gracious presence, but García Bernal makes by far the greatest impression. The humorous yet straight-faced police inspector steals scene after scene with his fresh take on the quintessential film-noir detective.
Neruda is a beautiful, complex and unconventional film, deftly weaving together elements of film-noir, historical biopic and catch-me-if-you-can thriller. Yet for all the complexity, what director Larraín makes clear is that to him the events of Neruda’s life were less significant than the gift the poet gave his readers – a voice to the oppressed and words with the power to arouse, inspire and break down barriers.