Pablo Larrain’s film about Pablo Neruda is his second for 2016 after Jackie, and in many ways it functions as a kind of companion piece. Like Jackie, Neruda is just a little too elliptical and evasive to really qualify as a biopic, as well as deliberately disorienting for anybody who isn’t particularly well acquainted with its subject, never purporting to be anything more than a fragment of the truth. In both films, Larrain isn’t exactly interested in the life of his subjects so much as crucial moments within their lives at which the whole meaning of their public identity was appropriated and distorted beyond their individual control. For Jackie Onassis, those were the days and weeks immediately after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, whereas, for Pablo Neruda, they were the days and weeks immediately after the Communist Party was banned in Chile in 1948 and Neruda was forced to go into hiding after being threatened with incarceration. During this period, Neruda, played here by Luis Gnecco, was smuggled from safe house to safe house, before finally escaping over the Andes and from there making his way to Europe, in a journey that he celebrated in his iconic Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech.
In other words, both films are in some sense about mediation and misinformation, bringing them closer to Larrain’s earlier, more overtly political films – such as Post Mortem and No – than might otherwise appear. However, whereas Jackie was mediated by way of her interview at Hyannis Port, and her general presence across American television and mass culture, here Neruda’s abrupt disappearance – and the censorious media of Chile at this particular moment – lead to a quite different approach. For while Neruda may initially appear to be the main subject of Neruda, he is gradually displaced in favour of Oscar Peluchonneau, played by Gael Garcial Bernal, a fictional policemen who has been called up to organise the manhunt after Neruda is impeached by the Supreme Court and goes into hiding. At first, Oscar seems like a more or less realistic character, but as the film proceeds it quickly comes to feel as if he is an amalgam of several of Neruda’s own personae, while the investigation revolves around his own realisation that he may be acting out a story that Neruda is writing – or has already written – around him. At the very least, it appears that Neruda’s life already contains and exceeds Oscar in some way that he can’t fully grasp (“He created you, trapped. A furious spy”) and that his pursuit of the poet forms a kind of self-discovery that he won’t be able to fully grasp until their final, revelatory moment of contact.
What ensues is a kind of magical realist cinema, in which this investigator figure becomes more like Neruda, or the popular image of Neruda, than Neruda himself, who in turns feels more and more dissociated from his poetic persona, and his vocation and vision as poet: “My inspector, my persecutor, my phantom in uniform…I dream of him and he dreams of me.” At times, it feels a bit like an allegory for the way in which Neruda has been chased and overtaken by his own reputation and cult status, one of the reasons why he is such a remarkably difficult poet to make a film about (at least without resorting to the sentimentality of a treatment like Il Postino). As the dialogue is increasingly subsumed into voiceovers and internal monologues which themselves quote and evoke Neruda’s verses, it seems as if Larrain has set himself the task of visualising Neruda’s body of work as much as his life, or that the whole point of Neruda is to prove that this is the same thing (“ in this fiction, we all revolve around the protagonist”). Of course, that makes it doubly dissonant to see Neruda exiled from his poetic vocation as well, as Oscar gradually comes to see through Neruda’s eyes and think in Neruda’s words, in a poetic romance that nevertheless somewhat displaces Neruda himself from those visions and turns of phrase in the process.
As the film proceeds, Larrain adopts a moody, murky purple palette to capture this strange convergence – not unlike the rainbow tints in No in the way it renders mediation visible – culminating with the mauve-tinted snow of the Andes, against which Neruda and Oscar finally come face to face and converge in a single moment. So eloquently does this sequence embody all the emergent mystery of the film that it finally feels as if the film itself is collapsed into the mythology of what happened to Neruda between heading to the Andes and arriving in Paris several months later. At the time, this had something of the quality of a magic trick, a quality Neruda certainly does nothing to dispel in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, not least because of the way in which he used the poet Miguel Angel Asturias as double, taking advantage of their physical resemblance and shared vocation to use his passport to leave the continent, in a beautiful gesture of political and poetic resistance and solidarity.
For that reason, Oscar finally feels a bit like an iteration of Asturias, or as a evocation of how Asturias might have felt as he witnessed Neruda leaving Chile and entering world history under his own name. That moment of departure is the crux of the film, where it exceeds even Neruda’s subsequent death in Chile, and the suspicious circumstances surrounding his death, as he is finally and fully subsumed into one of his poems over the Andean horizon, only eventually returning to South America, years later, in the guise of one (or several) of his own characters. While Neruda may well have been murdered, then, there’s no need for Larrain to focus on that, since by that point he had already become his characters, characters that the film presents as more enduring in their complexity, ambiguity and resonance than the individual life of any poet could hope to be, even that of Neruda himself: “Why did he do this? For his people…to give meaning to their nightmares…poems of an imaginary future.”