Director Pablo Larrain has described his film “Neruda” as an anti-biopic, and that sounds right. Although its title announces that this movie is somehow about the legendary poet Pablo Neruda, what we see on screen is a very different — and sometimes perplexing — animal.
Banish all thoughts of the warm, romantic Neruda depicted in the Oscar-winning “Il Postino” (1994). “Neruda” takes a skeptical view not only of its title character but of the idea of making anybody a hero.
The year is 1948. Neruda, played by the excellent Luis Gnecco, is in political trouble. Although he is a beloved figure in Chile, the new government is cracking down on Communists, and Neruda is a Communist senator.
Despite the politics and the writing, he has time to attend debauched orgies, where he recites his poetry like an old rock star trotting out the greatest hits.
He and his wife Delia (Mercedes Moran) flee Chilean authorities. Here the movie recounts some of Neruda’s true experiences at the time, as he goes into hiding at friends’ houses and eventually makes a dramatic escape across the Andes into Argentina.
Meanwhile, a policeman (Gael Garcia Bernal, who starred in Larrain’s “No”) is hunting Neruda. He also narrates the film, and worries deeply about his own role in this scenario, and his place on Earth.
This is appropriate. It turns out — and this is the movie’s most disorienting stroke — the detective might be fictional. No, not a character invented to advance a true story — he may not even be real within the film’s world. At one point he’s told that he’s merely a literary creation “written” by Neruda. Which must be a disconcerting thing to hear.
We’ll leave it at that, but suffice to say that “Neruda” is playing a very “meta” sort of game. Might we be watching a story written in Neruda’s mind? There’s no clear answer.
“Neruda” is so interested in its game that it does a little too much tail-chasing. I think Larrain is more successful exploring the private world of a famous person in “Jackie,” his first English-language film (for which Natalie Portman is Oscar-nominated as Jacqueline Kennedy). That film, less twisty than “Neruda,” ends up creating more true mystery than this convoluted movie.
“Neruda” (2 1/2 stars)
The legendary poet Pablo Neruda (played by the excellent Luis Gnecco) flees Chilean authorities in 1948. That much of the film is based in fact, but Pablo Larrain’s twisty narrative also plays around with “meta” storytelling ideas, with sometimes interesting, sometimes perplexing results. With Gael Garcia Bernal. In Spanish, with English subtitles.
Rating: R, for nudity, subject matter
Showing: Sundance Cinemas