The film, playing this weekend at the Portland Museum of Art, follows Chilean poet Pablo Neruda as he flees from fascism.
Biopics of artists are rarely art themselves. The act of creation is elusive and mysterious and maddeningly difficult to put on screen. Sure, artists, as a rule, have exciting or cinematically tragic lives, which helps. And visual artists at least let directors splash some paint around. But the best films about artists deal in those evocative ambiguities that are their subjects’ stock-in-trade.
Over-explaining an artist is like over-explaining art — it sucks the life out. (Some exhilarating exceptions: “Basquiat,” “American Splendor,” “32 Short Films About Glenn Gould,” “Vincent & Theo.”) A biopic of a writer is even more of a challenge. (Trust me, typing is very dull to watch, and staring out the window to avoid typing, even duller.)
But, like the best movies about artists, “Neruda” isn’t content to just flesh out the life and career of legendary Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Instead, director Pablo Larraín wisely recognizes that the best way to get inside the mind of a writer is to get creative yourself.
(Here, I’m going to throw out a SPOILER warning for those of you planning on seeing “Neruda” at PMA Films this weekend. Even though this appropriately poetic film isn’t especially plot-heavy, there’s something you don’t want to know going in. Last warning — sort of a stylistic spoiler.)
Larraín, as he did in last year’s Jacqueline Kennedy biopic “Jackie,” isolates a pivotal, traumatic piece of his subject’s life. For Neruda (played by Luis Gnecco), it’s the post-WWII period where he — as well known in Chile for his communist politics as his poetry — went on the run, ahead of a crackdown from the country’s rising tide of right-wing military fascism. (Future dictator Augusto Pinochet is seen briefly as the commander of a concentration camp for leftist dissidents.) Alongside his wife, the artist Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), then-Senator Neruda hides out across Chile, always pursued by Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal of “The Motorcycle Diaries”), the dogged policeman assigned to bring him in.
From the start, “Neruda” plays like a WWII-era thriller with Bernal’s dedicated fascist looking right at home in his sharp suits, fedora and pencil mustache, as he narrates the hunt for the famed poet with a hard-boiled, harshly poetic voice-over narration of his own. Larraín keeps the visuals unpredictable, the cat-and-mouse car rides and conversations bathed in rich shadows, and expressionistic process shots and scene changes mid-conversation.
Meanwhile, we see the dumpy, middle-aged Neruda still pursuing his lifelong love of women and pleasure, while the trim, businesslike copper lags always a step behind, usually finding that his quarry has taunted him with autographed detective novels.
“Neruda” is a deceptively limited snapshot of a small but pivotal time in the poet and politician’s life. Gnecco (best known as the boss in the Chilean version of TV’s “The Office,” of all things) makes Neruda a slippery figure, his self-regard and love of luxury always at war with his principles.
At a lavish dinner, a drunken peasant woman asks for a kiss and an autograph before asking, pointedly, “When communism arrives will we all be equal to him or will we all be equal to me?” And Bernal’s policeman sneers about Neruda’s dilettante revolutionary leftists while he, himself, expresses his inner thoughts in something like fascist poetry. All the while, the film reveals the creeping terror around the edges of this stylized pursuit, with soldiers, torture, and repression always puncturing the moody two-man drama.
It’s a cagey game Larraín is playing, one that only gradually reveals itself as the two central figures finally draw together at a stunning, snowy pass in the Andes. Gnecco’s Neruda is all contradictions, embodied in the contrast between the fiery political verse that becomes the peoples’ rallying cry and the snatches of love poetry that are constantly quoted back to him by those he meets.
Meanwhile, the magnetic Bernal tamps down his natural charisma to play a handsome cipher whose own thoughts come to us in enigmatic and vivid imagery. “Neruda” is a chase, a period piece, a biopic and, ultimately, an ingenious rumination on the power of art to fashion its own version of reality.
“Neruda” is playing at PMA Films at 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. $8, $6 for museum members and students with ID. The film is 147 minutes and is rated R. Check the PMA site for more details: portlandmuseum.org/events/movies.