A surpassingly strange chimera of visual magic and verbal delight, leavened with humor both bawdy and bittersweet, Pablo Larrain‘s “Neruda” takes the surname of its subject as its title, but in absolutely no other way under the sun does it resemble a standard biopic. For argument’s sake we’ll say that it “tells the story” of Chilean Nobel laureate and folk hero poet Pablo Neruda’s flight from the authorities after the Chilean Communist Party, of which he was a proud member with a seat in the Senate, was banned and a warrant issued for his arrest. But “Neruda” doesn’t tell a story, it doesn’t recount or attempt to recreate events that really happened. Instead it takes slivers and smithereens of Neruda’s life and politics and personality — like his surprising love for pulp detective novels — and riffs on them in a near-frenzy of visual and narrative inventiveness. In short, I think I just ate something funny, then had a dream about Pablo Neruda.
As a kind of ideological anti-biopic, it will certainly frustrate anyone hoping to gain a greater insight in to Neruda’s talents — this is not a film particularly interested in the romance of the creative process (it’s often downright dismissive of it, wearing its own off-the-charts level of creative invention similarly lightly). The poems Neruda wrote while underground seem to materialize with little effort on his part, out of the ether, to be packed into envelopes and disseminated to friends and luminaries, like Pablo Picasso, across the world (this is a tale of many Pablos).
Ultimately the film emerges as a greater testament to the imaginative powers of Larrain, DP Sergio Armstrong and writer Guillermo Calderron than those of Neruda himself, who is as often the subject of gentle fun-poking and de-mythologizing as he is the Byronic hero (helped by the fact that, as portrayed by Luis Gnecco, Neruda is appropriately tubby and balding with a slicked-down comb-over and a penchant for unflattering hats). But even self-created mythic heroes need mythic foes; without them, how can Neruda turn his persecution in to the “wild hunt” he so desires it to be?
Enter Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal, as angular and sharp-boned as Gnecco is benevolently round and soft) and it’s just the first of many dizzying conceptual about-faces, that the foe here is the one who narrates the film. A police inspector with Daddy issues, Peluchonneau is appointed by the President (Larrain talisman Alfredo Castro, his eyes glittering malice in a small but perfectly played role) to apprehend Neruda after he goes to ground. But what saves Peluchonneau from being merely the Clouseau-like figure who gets outfoxed and double-crossed at every juncture by Neruda and his loyal allies, is that in dramatic phrases that are equal parts Raymond Chandler, Dante and Wile E. Coyote, he meditates in voice-over on his quarry with the single-mindedness of true obsession and a poet’s ear for a perfectly formulated simile.”They imagined Neruda made love with a rose between his teeth” he says of the women who sigh over the great man’s poetry, and later declares aloud after the poet eludes him once again, “This hunt is lacking terror!” Bernal is outstanding in this tricky role, in perfect sync once again with Larrain, with whom he collaborated last on the terrific Pinochet-era drama “No.” And he has to be, because Peluchonneau, far from being just the villain or just the bumbling policeman, emerges as the film’s most touchingly tragic figure. And that’s before he even begins to worry that he might, in fact, be a figment of Neruda’s imagination, and a “supporting character” at that.
Because yes, “Neruda” is about poetry and it is about politics — take the poignant moment when a boozed-up washerwoman approaches the inarguably bourgeois Neruda at dinner asks him whether, once his communist revolution occurs and everyone is equal, they will all be “equal to me or equal to you?” But for all the ideals and ideologies given quick but cutting pen-pictures here, what the film is really about is fiction.
And that is where “Neruda” takes flight into the stratosphere of the unexpected. Every moment of the movie is a fiction, a fabrication and Larrain never lets us forget it, using the stunning digital photography (is any director/DP team better mastering the expressive potential of that format than Larrain and Armstrong?) in immensely innovative ways. The camera is rarely still but manages both to pick up striking dramatic compositions and deliver silly sight gags, like Neruda hiding from Peluchonneau by pretending to be a photograph. It’s wackily madcap at times, with deliberately hokey back-projection giving an almost cartoonish air to car chases, and it’s stupidly beautiful at others, as men talk in grand halls of power while dogs bark surreally on staircases in the background. And with many of the conversations taking place continuously across several different locations — a jarring device at first, before one settles into its quickfire rhythm — Larrain is always reminding us “this is not real, this did not happen.” Even the music from Federico Jusid, which frequently layers two different motifs on top of one another for a discordant effect heightens that artificiality, while the breakneck, almost overwhelming pace with which the picture is edited scarcely allows you to draw breath, let alone settle into a comfortable disbelief-suspended state. At times it resembles nothing so much as a newly discovered work of the French New Wave.
Perhaps at the end you know very little more about the historical figure of Pablo Neruda. But you know a lot more about the playful and joyously experimental mind of Pablo Larrain, and that is a most extraordinary place to spend a couple of hours. Each of Larrain’s films to date has been different from the last, but the distance between them in terms of confidence and formal daring has been increasing exponentially. “Neruda” feels like such a leap into the unknown that it’s almost outside the solar system — it’s the Pluto of Larrain’s filmography so far. A dexterous, mischievous, almost incomprehensibly intelligent film that has such invention packed into every frame that the only real danger is overload, “Neruda” works most thrillingly as an effusive love letter to the very concept of fiction and all the ways it can set you free, written in lyrical but staccato meter, perhaps with a rose between the teeth. [A-]