While Jackie created Oscar buzz for the unique twist on its subject matter and the strong performance by Natalie Portman, it wasn’t the only biopic filmed by director Pablo Larraín last year. Pablo Neruda is seen as something of a national treasure in Chile, but his artistic and political prowess is unknown to the vast majority outside of the country. Larraín approaches Neruda in a similar fashion to the Kennedy story, focussing on a small period in the poets life to represent the man as a whole.
Even without prior knowledge of who Neruda was and what he stood for, it quickly becomes obvious Larraín is the perfect director to tell this story. He bends and plays with a meta-narrative, toying with the concepts of character and story seen between two men. It’s as much a film about Neruda and his pursuer as it is about literature, films and the art of storytelling. Larraín elevates this into a form of cinematic lyricism, existing somewhere between a dream world and fictional reality.
The time period is the late 1940s, where Senator Neruda (Luis Gnecco) and the rest of the Communist party are driven into hiding by a new regime working in tandem with President Truman. Threatened with arrest, he moves between the houses of friends with partner Delia (Mercedes Morán) hotly pursued by the policeman tasked with capturing the famed poet. Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) is the proud and ambitious inspector always one step behind the poet who, despite failing at every turn, resolutely holds onto his belief he will be the man to bring this iconic communist to justice.
Oscar is a complete invention, even being reminded of his fictional supporting cast role by Delia in one of the many delightful exchanges in the film. Yet his existential journey of self-realisation frames the legend Neruda is building of himself, the film noir-style investigation a representation of the detective novels the poet was so fond of. There are also generic elements of the western, black-comedy, chase and road movies all thrown into the mix by Larraín who is clearly enjoying the freedom his complicated subject allows.
Tackling such an authoritative and well-loved national icon would’ve, perhaps, felt like a daunting task, as would have bringing to life the ethereal qualities of his poetry. Larraín doesn’t just show us the politician and romantic poet but also his hedonistic tendencies and over-confidence in his own legend. Yet the director manages to spin a row of plates with creative ease and somehow avoids breaking a single piece of china. It’s an ambitious approach that brings us closer to not only Neruda and his work, but how dearly he was loved by the people of Chile.
You’d quickly run out of fingers trying to count the number of botched biopic films released over the past 30 to 40 years, and a recent change in tack has seen the sub-genre reinvented. Focusing on shorter periods rather than an entire career has produced much more engaging films that capture the essence of their subjects. Larraín’s ingenuity has taken this idea even further, creating an ‘anti-biopic’ as he himself calls it. It appears that Neruda was a larger than life character, full of verve, passion and contradiction, so while the film may not be able show us all that he was, what we are treated to is spellbinding enough.
NERUDA is in UK cinemas 7 April