In the late forties, the poet and member of the Senate Pablo Neruda faces the consequences of denouncing the Chilean president he’s previously supported. Suddenly, he becomes the enemy of the communist party and the most wanted person on their list. He’s forced to live in hiding, and soon, when it becomes too dangerous, he plans to leave the country. For a short time, we observe the life of the artist closely – alongside the shadowy policeman whose goal is to capture the poet for the government.
A tired, overused narrative can sometimes make a biopic indifferent to the millions of others. Although everyone has got their own story, many filmmakers often hold onto the same third-person voice to tell the story of someone remarkable, so these original quirks and unknown events fade away between the millions of other. And the point of view can do so much to make the film completely interesting – and Pablo Larraín, who has released his first feature film Jackie in English only last year, knows how to interlace the real events with a bit of fiction to keep the audience on their toes. It’s also another film where he attempts a quiet analysis of human mind based on a public figure’s life, or rather a selection of events taken out of it.
A dash of drama and crime he borrows from the other genres make the story much more exciting and reveal the unknown side of the main character. Funnily enough, the character that narrates the story – Oscar, a policeman that has been tasked with capturing the poet – is purely a product of Neruda’s imagination, who enjoys playing cat and mouse with an enemy who’s always one step behind him. He’s an imaginary antagonist, exaggerated almost to a comical level at times, with his decadence and the need of proving himself which mirrors Neruda’s own qualities at times. Sometimes, the narrator quietens, and we get to know what he’s not aware of: we’re shown what we wouldn’t be told otherwise, and the gaps are quickly filled. There’s also a huge dose of poetry in the background, built around the story in the voiceover, that gives Neruda such ethereal vibe. In a way, it becomes less of a biographical film, but more a deeper, lyrical, existential musing instead.
A fictional character Oscar (Gael García Bernal) adds a brand-new dimension to the story. We get to understand his own search for identity and the fear that he’s always a secondary character in the broader picture. Bernal is nailing the troubled detective presence, revelling in his existential musings, and handling the closure really well. His performance steals the show from the titular character, and his decadent hero fuels the poetic side of the picture much more than the spoiled poet character sometimes.
But that’s also because the biopic doesn’t try to show the main subject in the best light possible. Pablo is a great artist, but he also has his weaknesses: the poet lives off the praise he receives, he doesn’t listen to people much and always needs to get his way, and he loves to be surrounded by women. He’s also snobbish, and a little bit hypocritical when it comes to his ideals: when a waitress asks whether the promised future will make everyone equal like him or herself, he stops for a bit to think twice before he answers: at the end of the day, where does he fit in the picture of “common people”? His egoism also reveals when he tells his wife (Mercedes Morán in this role is another highlight of the movie) to kill herself – he won’t care, he’ll simply have more things to write about. Luis Gnecco captures the charisma and magnetism mixed with all the hypocritical quirks of the main character, breathing life into the protagonist that’s not a statuesque man, but a human with signature quirks that make him who he truly is.
On the visual side, Larraín limits his colour palette to darker shades. Shadows add a sense of mystery to the picture: from the nightlife to investigator’s offices and muted down rooms of artists’ houses, the characters move in darker spaces that give way for the unknown. It’s also a nod to the films of the era – the films of the late forties and fifties.
Using an unusual storytelling device to frame a story of a well-known poet, Larraín allows himself to do much more than merely retell a biography. Under his direction, Neruda becomes a much deeper film that wanders around the topics of existence and the struggles with the mind – with splendid acting from Bernal, Gnecco and Morán that explore both the philosophical and purely human tropes in the story.