Proclaimed by its director an “anti-bio”¹, Neruda presents a semi-fictional account of poet Pablo Neruda’s flight from the Chilean authorities after an arrest for his communist ideas and ideology. Not only does Neruda follow the poet’s hiding and running, but it also focuses on Don Pablo’s opponent, Oscar Peluchonneau, the inspector hunting the poet down. Neruda turns into a brilliant rant against narrative clichés and a nostalgic hommage to classic cinema.
Biopics often present a problem of narrative. A recent example of a biographical film falling for common mistakes of the genre (if I may call it that) is Trumbo (2015). Jay Roach’s cinematic account of the communist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s life shows thematic similarities with Neruda, but in terms of cinema they unmistakably differ. Trumbo has many great qualities – acting, cinematography, costumes and background are all better than decent – and these make the film’s demise all the more painful. Biopics often suffer from a misplaced collage-ness; a crumbling narrative. Life is not a narrative, and often when a biopic is intended to imitate real life as much as possible, the film suffers from this rather obvious fact. The intentionally ‘true’ story is seldom capable to correspond with the film’s narrative value as well as real-life length, and so the story becomes fragmented and ultimately unsatisfactory.
But not this time, director Pablo Larraín (No, El Club) must have thought. As he now gladly explains, he and writer Guillermo Calderón (El Club) were well aware of the inherent traps of paradox that biographical films lay out, and decided not only to introduce fiction into Pablo Neruda’s story, but to make the film as filmy as film gets. I mean, Neruda seems to be cinema at its healthiest; it’s full of references to classic cinema, it’s cross-genre, humorous, exciting, self-reflexive, aesthetically pleasing and most of all: it presents us with a well rounded narrative.
With the fictionalization of such an important figure as Pablo Neruda comes great responsibility. Instead of apologizing to the audience or warning the people that they will not be shown actual events, Neruda‘s makers produce a story that is about storytelling and the human tendency to introduce narrative into real life. Thereby Neruda reflects on its own non-fictional connotations and fictional nature. In the cat and mouse game that inspector Peluchonneau and Pablo Neruda play, they fight for their narrative role rather than for their lives, they fight for fame, for legendary status and for agency in their own story. When Delia del Carril, Neruda’s loving partner, speaks to the inspector and tells him that he is only an invention in the story of Neruda’s escape story, a supporting character to the heroic Don Pablo, inspector Peluchonneau stops hunting Neruda and starts seeking his own heroic personage in the hunt. Both characters are romantic figures, and they become intertwined in an egocentric struggle for power over the narrative.
This complex manhunt plays out as comedy, drama, classic noir and modern western, and shifts between these genres so fluently that the film still maintains its unity. All this is given the atmosphere of classic 60’s and 70’s cinema through obsolete cinematographic qualities, while some absurd editing techniques give Neruda an unprecedented subtle surreal character. Along with genius performances by leading cast members Gael García Bernal and Luis Gnecco and an wonderfully exciting plot, Neruda is one of the best and most interesting films to come out in 2016.
(4/5) Benjamin Lee for The Guardian: “Neruda takes a lot of wild chances and, like the poet whose life acts as inspiration, it’s unwilling to play by the rules. Dizzily constructed and full of more life and meaning than most “real” biopics, it’s a risk worth taking.”
(B+) Eric Kohn for Indiewire: “At first, Neruda reeks of artificiality that lends the distracting air of a tired melodrama. But that’s all part of the plan for Larrain, who gradually transforms the story into a self-aware gamble.”
¹ Dargis, Manohla. “Why the Movie ‘Neruda’ Is an ‘Anti-Bio’“. The New York Times. May 18, 2016.