Focusing on a period that begins in 1948, during which Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda was declared an enemy of the state and threatened with arrest, Pablo Larrain’s Neruda refashions the historical events as a thrilling cat-and-mouse chase between police prefect Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) and Neruda (Luis Gnecco). Throughout, Larrain cranks up the stylistic artifice to a potentially headache-inducing degree, using lens flares, murky compositions of silhouette and shadow, and rapidly shifting camera angles to present the “historical” events in the most dramatic possible light. Aided by Pelochonneau’s incessant voiceover, it quickly becomes clear that the film’s subject is its very writing, the police prefect himself being a dramatic construct. (“Am I fiction?” he asks Neruda’s wife at one point.)
Circumventing stale biopic conventions, the film is both an ironic creation and wry deconstruction of history, myth and legend, one that calls attention to its artifice at every turn. It’s an inspired conceit, and for those on its very specific wavelength, it’s also utterly hilarious, using both its metatextual trappings and García Bernal’s cannily self-effacing performance to maximum effect. (The finale, in its blatant disjunction between image and text, is particularly brilliant—like the showdown of a Western reframed by one-sided delusion.) Neruda is a film that places as much weight on a comic pause before “…of Chile” (whenever Pelochonneau recites his full title) as on the purported real-life particulars of Neruda’s escape. The overall conceit does sacrifice some dramatic heft and political resonance to maintain its playfulness, but that seems a small price compared to the staid alternative. Pelochonneau may be made up, but Neruda has a very real pulse, which is more than can be said for most biopics.
Published as part of Vancouver International Film Festival 2016 | Dispatch 1.