Chile (2016) Dir. Pablo Larraín

Roses are red

Violets are blue

Sorry Pablo Neruda

This film’s not all about you

Obviously I will never be recognised for my poetry as the legendary Chilean was, but Neruda is also (in)famous for being a political outlaw, which is the focus of this loosely factual comic-drama.

In 1948, two years after winning the election with their support, Chilean President Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro) turns his back on the Communist party, banning the party and arresting its members. One disgruntled member is renowned poet and senator Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco), who is unabashedly outspoken in his disapproval of Videla’s actions.

With Neruda now a primary target for arrest by police officer Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), at the behest of his artist wife Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), Neruda tries to flee to Argentina, only to be refused at the borders. Forced to go into hiding with the help of friends and ex-party members, Neruda continues to stoke the flames of outrage and rebellion with Peluchonneau one step behind him.

Prior knowledge of the life of Neruda may not be necessary when viewing Pablo Larraín’s film but might help in the long run since this is less a biopic, and more a film with him in it. Not that we don’t get a slight fantasy driven insight into the famed wordsmith turned politician, but it is only a snapshot of what is implied to be a colourful life, thus basing an opinion about him on this infamous chapter of his story is a tad erroneous.

Another problem is knowing whether the slight humour found in this telling of Neruda’s story is typical of the man or is something Larraín injected himself, since he too is noted for his dark and unconventional take on life. With occasional wanderings off kilter and a pervasive narrator in Peluchonneau that seems less relevant to the plot as if he was reading from a different text, it is not quite easy to gauge what Larraín is going for.

From this we can derive the central theme is one of trust, mostly who we can rely on to trust, bent in a number of different ways both figurative and literal. The former comes from the aforementioned narrator for reasons already explained, suggesting the young detective is on an entirely different plane to the narcissistic fugitive he pursues, yet could extend to Larraín himself for presenting us with this such a whimsy heavy fictional take on a true story.

The literal interpretation is much plainer to read. First there is Videla’s betrayal of the Communist party after their support won him his presidency, a clear breach of the trust they had in him. Then there is Neruda, a gregarious, hedonistic, self-absorbed wizard of words of great fame in Chile, whose lyrical verses no doubt have hidden depths to those prepared to look for them, therefore can’t always be trusted to be truthful either.

Overall, the basic story is easy enough to follow – Neruda must evade capture but in is arrogance continues to live an open decadent lifestyle while also having his poetry and angry essays delivered across the country to stir up unrest – and does make for a quirky comic drama. Quite what the appeal of this pot bellied, balding, boorish poet is remains a mystery but outside of the government he is quite beloved.

Meanwhile for Peluchonneau, his attempts to smoke Neruda out of hiding backfire and every time he gets a lead he is always too late. In two scenes, Neruda is actually right under Peluchonneau’s nose, one in particular contains a fantastically clever reveal that is a visual highlight of this stunningly shot film.

But the densest scene, an odd location shifting chat between Peluchonneau and Delia, is where audience interpretation will differ. Delia likens the whole scenario to one of Neruda’s books, saying he created Peluchonneau and is not the hero of the tale, rather Neruda is, which causes Peluchonneau to question his own existence.

It’s an abstract piece of philosophy, so my take will likely be wrong, but I took it as Delia suggesting Peluchonneau is not in control of Neruda despite their respective roles per the law, and that everything has played out as Neruda wants it to just as if he was writing a novel. In other words, Peluchonneau has no more free will over his actions than any fictional character doing whatever his creator writes for him.

Perhaps there is a genius to how Larraín is able to take a stable genre and subvert in this manner, but it only really works if one is on the same wavelength. At first, the little touches, such as the obvious back projection used for the driving scenes to emulate the 1940’s style is a nice homage to the defining era of film noir, yet it lends itself to parody at the same time raising more questions about Larraín’s intent.

As suggested earlier the luscious cinematography, genre motifs, and loving recreation of the 1940’s make this a visual treat, though the use of lens flare in the oddest of places is a bit much. The cast all deliver across the board, with the two leads clearly getting what Larraín is trying to achieve here and respond accordingly – Luis Gnecco is wonderfully pompous and comically defiant as Neruda, whilst the ageless Gael García Bernal brings the pathos as Peluchonneau.

More than a simple clash of political ideals or your basic cop vs. villain storyline, the cat and mouse game that evolves becomes an intellectual battle of wills with high existential stakes. It sounds horribly pretentious and baffling, and probably is, which is why Neruda is not a film for anyone either hoping to learn about the eponymous character or in search of a decent crime thriller either.

Unquestionably inventive and daring but too leftfield for appeal beyond the intellectual elite, Neruda is certainly an experience but maybe not a repeatable one.