A legend of Latin American literature, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was also a fierce political activist. Long before his mystery-shrouded death in 1973, his ideals often clashed with those of his government, at one time forcing him into exile. In the “anti-biopic” “Neruda,” writer and director Pablo Larrain combines the facts of one such clash with the fiction of a detective story, creating an unconventional cat-and-mouse game about the stories we create for ourselves.
In 1948, the Chilean government illegalizes communism and publishes an arrest warrant for Pablo Neruda, national literary treasure and senator. Assigned to the task of capturing the poet is Oscar Peluchoneau, a police detective addicted to the thrill of the chase and hungry to take leading man status in his life. With Peluchoneau always one step behind his prize, the question becomes when the inevitable collision between the two will occur as Neruda’s allies smuggle him closer to the border.
Luis Gnecco as Neruda and Gael Garcia Bernal as Peluchoneau make for worthy opponents, despite minimal onscreen contact. Gnecco ensures that his performance honors the real man’s creative genius and concern for his homeland’s struggling masses, for whom his passionate poetry became a voice. He also paints Neruda as a stubborn man who frequently gets a kick out of taunting the other team. “This has to become a wild hunt,” Neruda tells his friends as he plays hot potato from one safe house to the next and refuses to stay confined indoors. As the fictional Peluchoneau, Bernal is a mixture of soft-spoken, conflicted, suave and slightly incompetent. He achieves the difficult task of promoting allegiance towards the detective driven crazy by his sidelines position and desiring that the detective remain unsatisfied in his mad manhunt. As much as Peluchoneau wants to catch Neruda, Bernal always gives off the sense that the detective doesn’t really want capture his target because that would mean the end of the adventure. Mercedes Moran initially appears to be little more than marital moral support as Neruda’s wife, a Paris-educated Argentinean painter named Delia del Carril. But, in one sharply written and stunningly delivered dialogue scene, she shows off del Carril’s hidden power, and it’s not something she’ll let any man tamper with or question.
Guillermo Calderon’s script plays like a page-turner, as the narrator’s voice generates curiosity about what comes next. This works to great effect in the film as, initially, we do not know who the narrator is. “A fabulous chase is about to begin,” the narrator says, at the film’s opening. Voiceover tends to too easily become an lazy trope but, in the context of this film, its frequent usage not only maintains the fascination but also provides a window into the narrator’s feelings of jealous inadequacy.
With biopics, certain genre rules must followed and the audience often already knows the end of the story. But, in blurring the lines between history and invention, “Neruda” uses elements of a true story to forge a genre-bending original story that demonstrates the limitless extents of a writer’s imagination.