“Art is a lie that tells a truth,” Pablo Picasso once said. The aphorism animates Pablo Larraín’s canny and vigorous Neruda, a sidelong biopic of the preeminent Chilean poet and politician, featuring a brilliant Luis Gnecco in the title role, that’s equal parts fact and fiction. (Conversely, Larraín’s film also reanimates the Cubist titan, here featured in a small but crucial role as one of Neruda’s most passionate defenders.) As in Tony Manero (2008), Post Mortem (2010) and No (2012), his trilogy about the trauma of the Pinochet regime, Larraín, born in Santiago in 1976, takes an oblique approach to his subject, one of his country’s most exalted heroes — a strategy that renders the past always labile and dynamic, never static and turgid.
Larraín narrows the scope of his subject’s life to 1948, the year that Neruda, then a senator representing Chile’s Communist party, was forced into hiding after President Gabriel González Videla (regular Larraín collaborator Alfredo Castro) outlawed communism and called for the writer-statesman’s arrest. The historical record, however, is embellished by a wholly fabricated character: Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal, the star of No), both an officious police officer tasked with ensnaring Neruda and the film’s unreliable first-person narrator.
Referents and identities are always slightly unfixed in Neruda, a film that reaches dizzying, exhilarating velocity by flouting the conventions of its hidebound genre. Peluchonneau, we soon discover, is a character doubly imagined: not only by Larraín and screenwriter Guillermo Calderón but also by the Neruda that they have concocted. Puncturing Peluchonneau’s hubris, Neruda’s wife Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán) explains to the homburg-wearing inspector that he exists solely as a supporting character in one of her spouse’s stories: “He created you as the guard of an imaginary border. He thinks about you thinking about him.”
A chronicle of a towering 20th-century author, a detective story and a metafiction, Neruda consistently calls attention to its own artificiality; the rear projection in scenes of Peluchonneau driving in pursuit of his quarry gives Larraín’s project a Hitchcockian aura. The overzealous cop isn’t the only fantastical conceit. Neruda explores several myths, including those perpetrated by the poet-politician himself, who tells one of his young protectors that he wishes to be a “popular giant.” (The guardian’s response to the man he reveres: “I ask that you be more humble.”)
The Pablo Neruda presented in Larraín’s film is a protean figure — fitting for a man who came into the world, in 1904, as Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto (he legally changed his name in 1946). Neruda is addressed by a rival in the senate as “Emperor Caligula” in the near-hallucinatory opening episode, which takes place in a majestic legislative chamber that doubles as a lavish pissoir; the insult may be a reference to the writer’s voluptuary tastes, illustrated by visits to brothels, where he is a beloved client. In the next scene, Neruda is dressed up as Lawrence of Arabia, reciting “Tonight I Can Write,” one of his most enduring poems, from 1924.
Neruda must assume a variety of disguises to evade his would-be captor, and yet one truth remains constant: He is a man who, as President González Videla explains, “could pull a piece of a paper out of his pocket and 10,000 workers would go silent to hear him recite poetry in that voice of his.” Neruda forgoes slavish re-creation — the kind of mimesis that sinks Larraín’s recently released, baffling biohazard Jackie — for a more audacious consideration of language, literature and iconicity.