It's the right of a narrative filmmaker to take liberties with historical events and figures, especially when art — not history — is the primary goal. Countless failed biopics prove that strict adherence to historical facts seldom leads to satisfying historical drama.
Chilean director Pablo Larrain has no qualms about fictionalizing history for his own creative purposes, even as regards era-defining events. Larrain's Jackie imagines the inner turmoil of first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis during the week following the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, and it's every bit as hard to watch as that description implies.
With Neruda (which arrives in theaters a few weeks after Jackie), Larrain escalates his freewheeling approach to history while gleefully turning film-biography conventions on their ear. It portrays a single, crucial year in the life of Pablo Neruda, the beloved poet, activist, senator and card-carrying communist devoted to fighting fascism in post-World War II Chile. Citing the impossibility of pinning down such a complex cultural figure for a narrative film, Larrain paints a brash and colorful portrait of Neruda as he still exists in Chile's collective imagination. The result may be the world's first meta-biopic.
As the film begins, Senator Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is about to be removed from office and thrown in jail after the Chilean president he helped elect decides to ban the communist party. Neruda and his longtime partner, painter Delia del Carril (Mercedes Moran), go underground to avoid capture, beginning a long game of cat and mouse with entirely fictional police detective Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal), who also narrates the film. (It was during his time underground that Neruda wrote and disseminated Canto General, his most celebrated collection of poetry.) The chase — along with Neruda's stirring poems — enhances his status as a folk hero in his native land.
We begin to understand Peluchonneau's unique status as a narrative device — as opposed to real-life historical figures like Neruda, del Carril and others such as Pablo Picasso — when we hear Neruda on the film's soundtrack creating the character through his typewriter. Upon his introduction in the film, narrator Peluchonneau tells us that his character has arrived "from the blank page ... for my black ink."
Later, Peluchonneau and del Carril engage in a mind-blowing conversation about whether each of them is "real" or merely a fictional character supporting the larger aims of Neruda's story. Larrain further reminds us we are merely watching a film by using obviously artificial rear projections for driving scenes, just as Hollywood movies used to do.
Foremost among the director's achievements here is his success making all the dizzyingly self-referential material seem like a natural — even essential — part of his film. Larrain's methods reflect the restless creativity of the real-life Neruda while offering wry commentary on how heroes and history are made, then and now.
There are a lot of high concepts at work in Neruda, but that never keeps it from being entertaining and enjoyable. Shape-shifting from road movie to detective story to character study — and featuring lush images and propulsive camera work by cinematographer and frequent Larrain collaborator Sergio Armstrong — Neruda doesn't have time to get ponderous or heavy-handed. There are even some hard-to-miss parallels with the state of politics and government in the U.S. today. The more things change, the more they stay the same.