A feature named after a poet might sound like the type of film that belongs to documentary programming or public broadcast television. But Pablo Larraín’s Neruda is an action-driven piece of historical fiction, infused with detective drama. It recounts Pablo Neruda’s escape from Chile into exile after the country’s criminalization of the communist party in 1948, and with a great deal of imagination. The result is a poetic introduction to the life of the visionary Nobel Laureate in Literature.
In a game of cat and mouse, outlaw Neruda (Luis Gnecco) outfoxes the inspector Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) charged with the task of putting the writer behind bars by President Gabriel González. The poet stays only two steps ahead of Peluchonneau because he wants to feel the policeman close on his tail. And Neruda delights in endowing such an intimate dance between fugitive and the law with the trappings of romance. A visionary brings transcendence to any occasion. Neruda sees his flight into exile as an epic moment and wants to prepare each step of the journey for posterity. (The historical Nobel speech by Neruda mythologizes his trip on horseback across the Andes in such terms). The figure of the poet is one of seduction, and the allure extends into every element of his character.
Yet, for all of the romantic liberties taken by the narrative, history — that of Neruda in 1948 and our own historical moment — weighs into the film in significant ways. It depicts the first Chilean communist purge while foreshadowing the second by way of an appearance by a young Augusto Pinochet, overseer of the concentration camp housing political prisoners. And Neruda manages to make reference to the role that the United States played in instigating murderous campaigns of ideological cleansing in Latin America during the Cold War. Highlighting present day concerns, the poet is portrayed as having an immense empathy for a transgender performer reviled by a crowd. In a touching scene, the drag queen and Laureate recite poetry and sing together, suggesting an artistic meeting of minds between social actors that are not seen as equals. So the film artfully plays with bits of historical material, stretching them beyond the truth, to bring the full resonance of the story to life for the contemporary viewer.
Larraín’s “Nerudean” biopic makes use of formal innovations while it toys with the limits of biography. A unique permutation of a reverse-shot is used, in which the image cuts to another angle of the same person speaking rather than their interlocutor. This device allows characters to make introspective commentaries on what they are saying, often in order to contradict themselves. A retro use of a rear-projection car traveling technique willfully betrays two layers of cinematography superimposed upon one another. Both of these stylistic mechanisms evoke a doubling of the dimensions of the plot that is not fully understood until the film’s end.
Neruda’s shining star is Luis Gnecco, who brings the poet back to life. The energy that seduces the crowds gathered to hear his incarnation of the maestro recite verse extends to the film audience. A husky, obstinate, unpredictable hedonist of a man, determined to squeeze all of the poetry from his surroundings, the viewer is left curious as to what he will do next. The always-enjoyable Gael García Bernal plays his inspector Peluchonneau, by contrast, as an amiable buffoon, bested by the puppet master writing the story of his own exile at every turn. Larraín’s film finds its height of inspiration when it gives voice to Pablo Neruda’s poetry, embedding it in vibrant historical context and permitting it free reign to invent a world for our enjoyment.
Aaron Boalick (@FlixCritic) is a freelance film critic in New York City and Adjunct Faculty in the Film Division of Columbia University.