As rarefied cultural pastimes go, poetry now sits somewhere between bell ringing and Morris dancing – a broadly ignored music played by musty eccentrics. In fact, it takes a real lability of mind to imagine a time when poems were popularly consumed, intensely debated, even politically vital. Neruda places us in post-war Chile, when all these things were the case; at least, when the poet in question was Pablo Neruda.
It’s a second Pablo – Pablo Larraín – crafting this tale, hot on the heels of his other recent biopic and English language debut Jackie. The slipperiness of the historical record has always preoccupied Larraín, though the scope of his scrutiny shifts. No was an account of mediatised regime change; The Club, that of silenced institutional traumas. With Neruda he gives us a semi-fantastical life-in-the-year of a folk hero.
Specifically, its 1948, and the film begins with our bard (played by the uncannily similar looking Luis Gnecco) urinating with other politicians. For in addition to being Chile’s most famous poet, Neruda was the country’s most recognisable communist. After denouncing then President Gabriel González Videla for betraying his Leftist roots, the poet – much to his enjoyment – finds himself public enemy number one.
Here the fantastical elements arise, as we are introduced to the fictional detective ordered to find Neruda – police inspector Óscar Peluchonneau, played by Larraín stalwart Gael García Bernal. As the chase progresses, Peluchonneau increasingly gets the sense that he’s merely a supporting character; literally in fact, as a few meta-cinematic winks query just which Pablo (filmmaker or poet) is responsible for his creation.
As the film’s superego, Peluchonneau constantly falls afoul of Neruda’s id. Wine, orgies, and a fierce love for his wife Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán) defines Neruda as a Dionysian force, at home with society’s down and outs as much as its high-fliers.
This is by no means hagiography. Larraín also repeatedly highlights the disjunction between Neruda’s communist politics and his distance from the unwashed. Gnecco carries this off exceptionally well, truthful to the poet’s bombastic self-involvement without ever completely alienating him from our interests.
Perhaps the most memorable elements of Neruda though are its locations. The digitally rendered period details are ever so slightly off-putting, fitting for a tale so invested in fakery. That is until act three, when Neruda’s escape into Argentina gives cinematographer Sergio Armstrong full reign over the Southern Andes’ harsh beauty.
As films about hunting fugitives go, Neruda is distinctly and appropriately literary. Hence it’s a demanding poem to crack, especially if you’re not familiar with Chilean history. It is, however, worth the effort, a soulful meditation on pursuing a subject forever out of reach, and made by the greatest historical filmmaker working today.