Director: Pablo Larrain
Stars: Luis Gnecco, Gael Garcia Bernal
4 (out of 5) Globes
This was a good year for the renegade biopic. Don Cheadle’s “Miles Ahead” skipped the traditional stuffy, stiff, career-spanning approach and put the jazz god in a mostly made-up tale, involving harebrained thievery and a car chase. Chilean director Pablo Larrain made two of them, both released in December. Of the two, “Jackie” has nothing on “Neruda.” “Jackie” is a film symphony that imagines Mrs. Kennedy’s fractured headspace post-JFK assassination. “Neruda,” like “Miles Ahead,” flat-out makes stuff up.
Not all of it, though. “Neruda” is one of those biopics, like “Topsy-Turvy” or “Young Mr. Lincoln,” that zeroes in on a tiny slither of a famous figure’s life. It’s about when Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) went from Chile’s top poet and outspoken Communist senator to an enemy of the state, disappearing into the underground as his party was outlawed and eventually decamping for Europe. That happened. What didn’t happen is that he was pursued by a dogged, obsessive police officer named Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal), a Neruda superfan as enamored with the poet’s words as he was with the thought of nicking him. But Oscar isn’t real; he’s a total fiction Neruda has invented out of whole cloth.
It’s more than a cool idea for a biopic. It exercises the notion of using art not to flatter but to investigate. Larrain, via his fictionalized Neruda, wants to get inside his villain’s headspace. He goes so far as to have Oscar become not only the co-lead but the narrator, filling the soundtrack with fawning praise alternated with sinister growlings. He’s the type who’s fallen for an autocratic leader and must convince himself what he’s doing is right, even if what his thoughts often sound like intellectual masochism.
It’s a kind of sick dance, Oscar’s thoughts, and “Neruda” itself, with its always sailing camera, is always on the move. So was “Jackie,” but “Jackie” was a for-hire job that Larrain twisted, more than one would expect for an American product, to his own purposes. Here, he’s free to do whatever he wants. Larrain has a knack for pairing political outrage with playfulness. His weirdo 2008 shocker “Tony Manero” was about a cash-strapped “Saturday Night Fever” enthusiast who was also a murderer; 2012’s “No” (also with Garcia Bernal) was a sly satire about Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet shot on 1980s video. “Neruda” is meta-sorta-fiction, always calling attention to its own artificiality. But its sincere about wanting to do the impossible: understand, perhaps even forgive, someone who stands for everything you stand against.