Pablo Neruda as fantasy
Burning down the biopic
Directed by Pablo Larrain
Written by Guillermo Calderon
Rated MA 15+, 108 minutes
A chubby man with a comb-over (Luis Gnecco) sits bare-chested in front of a mirror, his eyes lined with kohl. He is dressing for the decadent party raging outside. With a fanfare, he joins the carousers, dressed in fake Arab robes. He begins to recite in ponderous musical voice: ‘Tonight, I can write the saddest lines…’
So begins Pablo Larrain’s fabulous fantasy biopic about the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda – although to call this a biopic does injury to the name, as Larrain intended. This young Chilean director also made Jackie. In both pictures, he moves into the structurally unsound mansion that is the traditional biopic and renovates with a flame-thrower. The house may not survive the treatment but it’s the most dishonest genre in movies, so who cares? Larrain’s approach is to burn it down and see what emerges.
What do I mean? Neruda is all of the following: unreliable as history, but immensely informative about the times and the man; entertaining as comedy, but still deeply melancholy about the politics of Latin America in the 1950s; drop-dead gorgeous as Chilean travelogue (including a snowy escape across the Andes), but imbued with sacred respect for the words, and the work it took to produce them. The whole film is structured as a cat-and-mouse thriller between the poet and the man sent to hunt him down – who is, we soon discover, a figment of the poet’s imagination.
The figment narrates the movie, attempting to valourise his persecution of one of the greatest poets of the century. Police inspector Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal), none too bright, must arrest the great writer, by direct order of the president. It is 1948 and die-hard communist Senator Neruda denounces the regime in the senate. The government outlaws the Communist Party (as Menzies tried to do here, a year later). Neruda and his Argentine wife Delia del Carril (Mercedes Moran), a painter, go into hiding, aided by Party emissaries.
Most of this is true. Neruda spent several periods in exile from his native Chile. When the regime changed, he would be appointed to a diplomatic post somewhere, but we see little of that. Larrain concentrates on the chase as a way of penetrating the poet’s agile and playful mind. Having invented the police inspector, Neruda leaves clues for him as he goes, just before his escape. The policeman, who knew nothing of the poet, becomes enthralled by his target, almost enamoured. He’s so well written and so well played by Bernal that we can almost like this dumb creature, were he not such a Fascist.
Luis Gnecco is a Chilean comedian. Here he fashions Neruda as a brilliant cherub, an amorous lover of life and all women, an orator and political warrior who is nevertheless sanguine about politics, but not about poetry. Larrain keeps putting him in fancy dress, so he can hide out, but also to suggest something universal and elusive. The director plays visual games, hiding Neruda in backdrops as the Inspector walks by. These jokes are like a literary Pink Panther, yet Larrain is never trivial.
It’s almost impossible to make a great film about great poetry, because poetry’s alchemy is unfilmable. If it is possible to make a great film about a great poet, such that you might want to read some of his ‘saddest lines’, this is certainly that film. Larrain has made a virtue of unreliability, the very thing that brought the biopic low. For him in this context, the freedom to imagine is a very political act.
Post script: a reader in Melbourne lambasted my ignorance in not recognising that the ‘fake Arab robes’ in my opening description were in fact, Neruda dressed as Homer – which I must say was a startling claim. I’ll have to wait for a second viewing to clarify that. If anyone knows, let me know…