The adjective “artificial” might seem like a strange one to apply to a film based on actual historical events. But Neruda is a wholly artificial film for the better, fabricating not only its settings and scenes, but whole characters and plotlines. What emerges is something like a meditation on the artistic process and not, as might be expected, on the life and legacy of the famed and controversial Chilean figure Pablo Neruda.
It should be noted that Neruda is one of two Pablo Larraín films that premiered in 2016. The other is Jackie, the widely touted and fiercely debated biopic focusing on the week-long period following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy through the lens of the First Lady. Starring Natalie Portman, that film is almost the polar opposite of Neruda, even though both are recognizably the work of the Chilean director. In contrast to the performance-driven ferocity of Jackie, Neruda opts for a much stranger and contemplative approach that utilizes all aspects in close cooperation to produce an equally strange (and arguably much more convincing) effect.
Roughly speaking, Neruda confines itself to the year that the poet and Communist Senator spent on the run from officials and is told from the perspective of two people: Neruda himself (Luis Gnecco) and tenacious police inspector Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal). At least on a chronological and motivational level, it is relatively straightforward; Larraín makes no attempts to mislead the viewer with, for instance, making Peluchonneau a secret supporter of Neruda. But in all other respects, the creative decisions made range from the slightly strange to the counter-intuitive.
One of these, perhaps the most overtly productive, is the continual refusal to portray Neruda as a saint or martyr for his cause. He is consistently shown to be a man of the people and a great poet, but he resolutely remains a simple and flawed man (thanks in large part to Gnecco’s stalwart and almost cantankerous performance). Less clear is the part played by Peluchonneau (a figure who never existed in real life); Neruda is the focal character but the inspector is the lens, narrating large chunks of the film—often seeming to converse with the dialogue spoken in the scene—and telling as much of his own story as he does Neruda’s. Despite this predominance, screenwriter Guillermo Calderón gives the audience little to go off of in terms of concrete characterization, preferring to show action rather than forcing the viewer into one single perspective on the situation.
It is fortunate that Larraín gives much to the viewer to work off of, submerging the already convoluted narrative in a mix of tones and moods that manage to cohere. Part noirish mystery (complete with beautifully swooping and shadowy digital cinematography) and part elegy, the film becomes progressively stranger in both form and content as it goes along, particularly in the way it deliberately uses artificial-looking rear-projection for scenes set in cars or on motorcycles. It’s difficult to ascertain how much of Neruda‘s metafictional daring is successful; by the end of the film where Peluchonneau’s very existence is called into question as he pursues Neruda across the Andes Mountains one could argue that Larraín has fully lost the plot. But, at least for this reviewer, the film is built in such a beguiling, deliberately playful way that it earns that sense of existential crisis. Regardless, Neruda feels both familiar and utterly unfamiliar, a hybrid of many different approaches that never oversteps its boundaries.