In terms of telling the story of a publicly acknowledged figure, associated with an important moment in time, a lot of contextual information can often get mixed into what is first and foremost a character study. Films such as J. Edgar and The Iron Lady, while featuring a stunning central performance, can often get a little bogged down with numerous subplots, designed to flesh out the overarching narrative, yet coming across as a little distracting and unnecessary.
However, there has been somewhat of a resurgence with biopics in a stronger, more effective regard. Consider Ava DuVernay’s efforts with Selma or Steven Spielberg’s execution of Lincoln: films that honed in on a specific moment, utilising it to its full potential in order to explore what exactly made their respective figures – Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln – so noteworthy.
It is Pablo Larraín’s new project, a documentation of the exiled experiences of poet and infamous Communist activist Pablo Neruda, that really pushes this envelope of biographical storytelling. Honing in on Neruda’s political opposition to Gabriel González Videla’s suppression of the Communist movement, and his subsequent hiding from the authorities out to capture him, Larraín follows in the footsteps of DuVernay and Spielberg by reducing the biographical story to one significant moment.
Now, that isn’t to say that Larraín’s film is devoid of activities specific to Neruda. There are moments where we see Neruda delivering his poetry, such as one surrealist performance of ‘Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines’, with Neruda garbed as the famous T.E. Lawrence.
However, as Larraín has stated across a number of interviews, Neruda is an anti-biopic. It is a film that does not explore Neruda in any specific detail, nor analyses more broadly, the political situation that surrounded his momentous campaigns on behalf of Communism. There are fleeting references to Videla and Neruda’s Communist affiliations, for certain, yet they are mere flourishes which appease any overt historical criticism.
Make no mistake, this is not a history lesson. Instead, what Larraín achieves is something far more permeable and particular to the cinematic art form: he not only communicates his personal response to the social influence of Neruda, but uses his story as a conduit to discoursing on the nature of art and the part it plays in the fabric of history.
This comes through Larraín’s depiction of the reality of Neruda, versus the image that emerges through his art. In the film, Luis Gnecco plays him as somewhat of a hedonist, often leaving the safety of his hideout and his wife Delia (Mercedes Morán) in favour of a questionable lifestyle of wantonness, visiting brothels and engaging in sexual activities with groups of courtesans.
This seems a far cry from the symbol that is Pablo Neruda, Communist poet who refused to back down to Videla and his aggressive, Anti-Communist policy. However, Larraín’s message does not concern the reality of Neruda and his persona. Instead, Larraín uses cinema as a means of depicting the dichotomy between this hedonist reality and the inspirational image of Neruda. The use of narration is prevalent in this regard. Rather than being told through the voice of Neruda, as you would expect, we have the voice of Gael García Bernal, playing the invented antagonist to Neruda, Police Inspector Oscar Peluchonneau. The artificiality of the character brings this image versus reality dialectic to the forefront of our experience. We should not take what is said, in relation to Neruda, for granted. Instead, what we should focus on is the power of Neruda’s work, how it exists outside of him as something greater than he could accomplish in himself. The narration works wonders in presenting this, and is the most effective use of the device to date, informing the viewer of the film’s inherently historical inauthenticity, in order to enhance the importance of Neruda’s image.
The film is quite difficult to grasp in this regard, and as with many of Larraín’s films, the payoff comes towards the end. You may feel as though Larraín is leaving the film a little too long without any real commitment to character development, but this is ultimately shown to be Larraín’s true goal. This is not a film about an individual: it is about how that individual’s work exceeds the individual himself.
Therefore, while I could congratulate Bernal and Gnecco on their performances, I think this would do a disservice to Larraín’s purpose. Bernal and Gnecco are messengers. Their actions in Neruda are merely those of Larraín and his screenwriter Guillermo Calderón, embodying the complexities of the being of art. To use Sergei Eisenstein’s terms, Neruda represents nature, Bernal represents industry, together their characters and actions form art, the producer versus the consumer, the Communist versus the Fascist. Out of all of these, art is the thing that is formed and ultimately stands the test of time, indisputable, cold hard fact yet unknown in its origin.
Watching Neruda in this way, one can sense it is quite profound in its statements on the nature of art. Its history is flawed for sure, and one could never use it to account for the reality of Neruda’s situation: the unreliability of the fictional narrator makes sure of that. However, instead Larraín uses a formalist approach, imbuing his film with an artificiality that makes us aware of its method of retelling the life of Neruda. It is an anti-biopic, stripping the figure of his character in order to give life to the work he produces. The narrator remarks on the voice of Neruda, how it could woo women and put masses into silence. This is Larraín telling us that the poetry of Neruda and his political defiance are what have this intoxicating influence on people, not the man himself.