If you miss the last third of Neruda, you could just look up the biography of the titular poet to get a rough idea of what happens, but you would leave with a completely different idea of the film’s purpose, Pablo Larraín’s take on the poet-diplomat, and most of the best moments of the movie. Neruda is not a standard biopic: it is not bogged down by the necessity to stick to facts, and its stylistic choices act as more than just something to keep the film visually interesting. It is a complex, fascinating look at the process of telling and retelling history, an exploration of how mythologizing, egos, and ultimately film can blur the lines between reality and fiction.
The film begins in 1948 with an introduction to Pablo Neruda (Alfredo Castro), the high-profile poet-senator-communist. When the Chilean president disavows communism and Neruda is impeached, he must go into hiding to avoid being arrested. The man on the hunt for Neruda is Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), a police prefect who is brimming with determination but lacking in proficiency. The film follows Neruda’s time underground, as he stays in the homes of fellow communists and tries to make his way out of the country. Peluchonneau is introduced before he is seen on screen via his narration of the film. Bernal’s incredible charm allows the narration, invoking the first-person narration of a noir film, to avoid the typical trappings of voice-over narration. It is not just a gimmick, restating information or carrying the burden of plot development; it is an integral part of the film, complementing the action and supporting the thematic elements. The purpose of the narration changes as the film goes on, first as a way to reference the doomed noir heroes of the past, and then as a way to get the audience to question the veracity of the film and to allow Peluchonneau a way to voice his existential crisis.
The film’s production design and cinematography, in addition to the narration, evoke the feelings of movies from the 40s or 50s, as if the film were being made as the events were happening. Larraín, along with his director of photography, Sergio Armstrong, perfectly uses the contrast between shadows and light to craft beautiful shots and paint Peluchonneau as a character straight from one of these old movies. The use of rear-projection in all the driving scenes is startling at first, but Larraín and Armstrong make it work well with the rest of the production, shooting all the backgrounds with the same grainy, desaturated pinks and whites as the rear-projection.
Further separating the film from a typical biopic, Larraín is not afraid to complicate his characters. Peluchonneau, who would like to believe he is an impressive and important police officer, is a bit of a buffoon and is always one step behind Neruda. But it’s clear he won’t give up until he captures the poet. Neruda is portrayed as an egotist, more concerned with his public perception than the political tenets he claims to hold. The film offers a few scenes showing the poor living conditions of the Chilean people, as well as communists being shoved onto the back of trucks to be shipped off to a concentration camp. Neruda drives peacefully past these incidents, never giving up his hedonistic lifestyle. Yet Neruda is still painted as deserving of the fame he has achieved, as the film shows the way his poetry affects the other characters. Whether it is a man in drag in a brothel bursting into tears or a group in a café inspired after hearing Neruda recite his poetry, it is clear that, regardless of his politics, his work speaks to the Chilean people.
Ultimately, the film uses its style and complex characters to contemplate the meaning and purpose of narratives. Peluchonneau sees himself as a hero, and he imagines the reception he will get when he arrests the criminal Neruda. To him, the events of the film are about a resilient detective bringing down the country’s most wanted man. The poet sees himself as an artistic and political deity, and he is always trying to make his story more compelling. He wants the chase to continue, he wants the detective right on his trail, he wants people to be worried about him. To Neruda, the tale is one of a defiant hero outsmarting his opponents at every turn. Larraín’s version is neither of these. Using his style to blur the past and present, making it seems like the films is playing out in real time, he claims his own version of the events – as valid as any other— and he holds this version from the audience and the characters for as long as possible. By doing this, the film tells a story about the way telling stories affects our understanding of real events. In the end, it doesn’t matter what happened and what didn’t — what matters is the story that gets told. History can have an impact, but as this film argues, perhaps legends are more significant.