The biopic is often seen as the most hidebound and dreary of genres. Too many films take us through their subjects’ lives in rigidly chronological fashion, ticking off their achievements and setbacks one by one. That’s why the brilliant Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s film about poet and revolutionary Pablo Neruda is so refreshing. Scripted by playwright Guillermo Calderón, this is a determinedly playful, magical realist-style yarn.
In his recent Jackie Kennedy biopic Jackie, Larrain concentrated on just a few days in the main character’s life, immediately after JFK’s assassination. Here, the time span is longer and the canvas is broader. The film is set in the late 1940s as Neruda goes on the run after making an inflammatory speech in Congress. The President wants the Communist poet to be arrested and humiliated. Gael Garcia Bernal is the dogged police officer Oscar Peluchonneau entrusted with the task of hunting him down.
The Chilean poet is a long way removed from the Che Guevara-like stereotype of the Latin American revolutionary. As portrayed by Gnecco, he resembles a slightly overweight provincial bank manager. He’s a glutton, womaniser, and a hedonist who takes an immense sensual pleasure in all of his creature comforts. There are plenty of Fellini-esque scenes here of him enjoying himself in brothels and somehow managing to live the high life, even when he is on the run.
Calderón’s screenplay has a self-reflexive quality. There is a sense that the entire story has been conjured up as a game by Neruda. The police officer is one of Neruda’s most fervent admirers and reads Neruda’s poetry even as he arrests the poet’s accomplices. His investigations allow us to see Neruda’s personality in all its contradictions. The film touches on the feuding and oppression in post-war Chile. We even catch a brief glimpse of the future dictator Pinochet, who’s overseeing a prison camp.
However, there is an elegance and wry humour in Larrain’s approach that stops the film ever from feeling like political agit-prop.
Review by Geoffrey Macnab, Independent