Whether we’re proud of it or not, we all have our bubble/echo chambers we tend to hang out in. For example, if you need random, useless facts about Gremlins, Chuck D, and Bart Simpson, I’m your man. If you ask me for sports stats, I can’t do nuthin’ for ya, man. But speaking of Bart, he and his sister Lisa were my introduction to Pablo Neruda. Lisa mused, “Hmm, Pablo Neruda said, ‘Laughter is the language of the soul.'” Bart scoffed, “I am familiar with the works of Pablo Neruda.” If Bart Simpson knew who he was, then I definitely needed to know who he was. Thanks to the downtown library that once sat on the corner of King and Calhoun and World Book Encyclopedia Volume N-O, I got a brief lesson. I then went about my day looking at the latest issue of Moviemaker. So, I don’t say this with any sort of willfully ignorant pride, but my knowledge of Neruda could maybe fill a thimble.
Enter Neruda, a film directed by another Pablo — Pablo Larraín, the man behind a few critically acclaimed films, including the recently Oscar-nominated Jackie Onassis biopic, Jackie. Unlike most biopics, Neruda doesn’t follow the same path as other films. It almost operates like its own piece of poetry by Neruda himself. That’s not to say that there isn’t a study of the man and his life, it’s just a more radical take, eschewing biopic conventions in favor of tone and lyrical power.
You see our subject through the eyes of Inspector Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), a policeman in charge of tracking down Neruda (Luis Gnecco) himself. As viewers, we are given glimmers of a straightforward story: Neruda’s public fall from grace in Chile after he withdrew support for a populist president in 1948 is covered and the resulting fallout that pushed him and his wife, Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), into hiding to evade arrest assisted by Communist Party members living with a lot more working-class hardships than Neruda himself. Peluchonneau is obsessed with catching Neruda. The rogue poet delights in taking advantage of the inspector’s vexation. You could say that Pablo is being a bit of a dick the way he toys with his nemesis, and those moments — like when he leaves behind his coveted detective novels for him to find — are like dangling food in front of a hangry man. What’s most enthralling, however, is how the film acts as a collage of random moments in Neruda’s life. Rather than just being handed a tale of underdogs and artistic passions that would heroically paint our subject, we are also introduced to a man who embodies the “champagne communist” pejorative — a person with political convictions that contradict the very upper-crust lifestyle he leads. Yes, there is a cat-and-mouse chase, but there is more concern for creating emotions rather than narrative manipulation of plot mechanics. It operates as more of a celluloid embodiment of our subject’s works.
The somberness, the humor, the noir-ish surreality, and the anger are more a product of direction than pure narrative beats. The unconventional approach to the biopic format is bold and successful in its aims.
Watching the film, I was reminded of Oliver Stone’s JFK, but not in a coked-out conspiracy theorist way. Instead, it was a film that allowed truth to colorfully intermingle with imagination. I could see that being viewed as a negative for those who like their biographical works straightforward. This film was my first introduction to Pablo Larraín, a filmmaker whose work I’ve been ignorant of to this point. Now I can’t wait to see his other works.
In a recent Dec. 15, 2016, interview in The New York Times, Larraín stated “He’s in my bloodstream … Neruda, in Chile, is in the water, is in the earth, is in the trees.” The passion for his subject is palpable, infectious even.