Director Pablo Larrain sure was feeling the bio-pic this year. He not only made his English language debut with the Natalie Portman headlined ‘Jackie’, but also delivered a much more personal effort in his native Chile about poet and politician Pablo Neruda.
In their own distinct ways, both films make a case for the seasonal Oscar bait genre as art. Both avoid the usual clichés of stringing together the greatest hits of the life of a famous person to deliver something that works as satisfying cinema first and a bio second. Obviously, the commercial appeal of ‘Neruda’ is far more limited than a movie about the most famous First Lady of the United States, but it’s also the more satisfying picture of the two. It’s not an easy watch by any means, but then again neither was ‘Jackie’ despite the movie stars.
Larrain’s film wisely narrows in on a specific year in the life of Neruda (Luis Gnecco). In 1948, he was a popular senator representing Chile’s Communist party in addition to being a beloved poet. Unfortunately, President Gabriel González Videla then outlawed Communism and called for the arrest of the writer/politician, forcing into him into exile in Argentina. Those are the facts of the story, or at least as many as Larrain allows into the movie. He’s not interested in anything particularly conventional here. His narrator is openly fictitious: a detective played by Gael García Bernal who’s obsessed both by Neruda’s writing and tracking him down. Larrain isn’t just open about him being fictional within the history, but also with the film as well, suggesting that he is in fact another florid creation by the writer at the center of the movie.
Make no mistake, ‘Neruda’ dives deeply into its subject. It’s just not bogged down by the nuts and bolts of laying out the events of his life. Instead, the movie toys with notions of fact and fiction that interested Neruda himself. It’s shot and lit like a thriller, with the gifted director pulling out all sorts of show-off tricks to toy with viewers and give them suspense and chills. However, there’s only so much audience immersion possible given that it’s clear even to the characters that all the detective material is manufactured. The film is both an open deconstruction of cinematic narrative forms and the ideas central to the work of a man who was rather fond of deconstruction himself.
It’s a head-trip to be sure, one that breaks walls and plays with expectations. Yet somehow the movie never feels like a mere cinematic parlor trick. It has humanity beneath all the meta madness, and somehow it sneaks up and moves you even while going out of its way to point out the manufactured techniques that created those emotions.
On a technical level, ‘Neruda’ is beautifully constructed. Larrain’s restless camera glides and probes through scenes, creating a dance between the actors and filmmakers along with a hazy and dreamy tone that suits all the meta experimentation (along with some deliberately artificial techniques like rear projection). Performances are also magnificent, with Luis Gnecco casting the title character in distorted shades of gray. He’s both nobly heroic as well as petty and self absorbed in his own work. He’s no Great Man in accordance with the conventions of hero-worshiping bio-pics, but a great man in all the complexities that make him damaged and human. Bernal is also quite interesting as the fictional detective, dialing back to a coldly distant ghost, but he also find glimmers of something beneath the façade. Like everything else in the movie, the performances are laid out in layers, never quite revealing all truths and always just out of grasp.
‘Neruda’ is a fascinating movie, if one that deliberately plays as difficult and cold. It’s a deconstruction of a myth that also promotes the value of that myth over the awkward realities that defined who the man truly was. Undoubtedly, many film school essays will be written about all the movie games Larrain plays. That also means that everyone who watches ‘Neruda’ will leave scratching their heads. For some that will be the exciting start of an obsession. For others it’ll be pure frustration over whatever the hell this movie was supposed to mean. Results may vary. Approach with caution and an open mind.