“Neruda,” an intoxicating puzzle of a movie directed by Pablo Larraín, chronicles a strange, harrowing episode from the late 1940s, when the Chilean government’s crackdown on communism drove the great poet and politician Pablo Neruda underground. Specifically, the film unravels the tricky game of cat-and-mouse between Neruda and an ambitious police inspector named Oscar Peluchonneau, who sought to track down the dissident artist whose writings had struck a dangerously resonant chord with the working class.
There was, in fact, no Oscar Peluchonneau — or, at least, none who fits the description blithely concocted by Larrain and his screenwriter, Guillermo Calderon. The charm of “Neruda” lies in its insistence that there may well have been, and that it scarcely matters if there wasn’t. Drolly and persuasively, the movie demonstrates that when it comes to evoking the artist and the nature of his art, historical fidelity and literal-minded dramatization go only so far.
“Neruda” is less a straightforward portrait of a great contemporary poet (and eventual Nobel Laureate) than a rigorously sustained investigation of his inner world. Although informed by the busy workings of history, politics and personal affairs, “Neruda” proceeds like a light-footed chase thriller filtered through an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” by the end of which the audience is lost in a crazily spiraling meta-narrative.
Initially it seems both roles must be filled by Pablo Neruda, played with prickly, preening brilliance by Luis Gnecco (“Narcos”), who donned a wig and gained more than 50 pounds to achieve his remarkable physical resemblance to the real deal. The key to the performance is that, despite the shimmering inspiration of Neruda’s poetry, neither Gnecco nor Larraín seems to feel any obligation to make Neruda himself a particularly inspiring figure.
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From the opening scene, a political gathering wittily set in an enormous public lavatory, Neruda, a senator and member of the Chilean Communist Party, is shown to be a proud and vociferous critic of his country’s leadership. But in the very next sequence, a lavish party crammed with half-naked revelers, the film presents the idea of Neruda as a Champagne socialist — a vain, hedonistic hypocrite who, like so many left-wing elites, loves “to soak up other people’s sweat and suffering.”
That damning bit of mockery is delivered by the aforementioned detective, Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal), who slyly complicates the film’s notions of authorship and agency. When Chilean President Gabriel Gonzalez Videla (Alfredo Castro) outlaws communism in 1948, responding to mounting Cold War anxieties, Peluchonneau eagerly leads the manhunt for Neruda, who has gone into hiding in the port city of Valparaiso with his second wife, the painter Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán).
“Neruda’s” formal spryness and nontraditional appreciation of history will come as little surprise to admirers of “Jackie,” Larraín’s other great bio-experiment of the moment, although nothing he’s done to date has forced him to take such intuitive leaps, to abandon realism so completely, as “Neruda.”
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Luis Gnecco, Mercedes Morán, Diego Muñoz, Pablo Derqui.
Director: Pablo Larraín.
Screenwriter: Guillermo Calderón.
A The Orchard release. Running time: 107 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual content, nudity, adult themes. In Spanish with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Wynwood, Tower.