Neruda: Book of Questions, by David Bax
In the fashion of Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln, Pablo Larraín’s Neruda bears the title of a standard biopic but instead drills down to a more localized sequence of events in its subject’s life. But where Spielberg used the origin story of the thirteenth amendment as a tribute to the subtle art of diplomacy and politics, Larraín envisions a dramatic chapter in the life of a writer as an elegiac explication of the primeval powers of storytelling itself.
In the late 1940s, the Chilean poet and novelist Pablo Neruda, then an elected Senator from the Communist party, found himself a fugitive from the law after speaking out against his own government about their treatment of striking laborers, after which Communism itself was outlawed. For roughly a year, Neruda lived in hiding, being shuttled between homes of ardent devotees and fellow travelers and then fleeing to Chile’s remote South before eventually escaping across the border and living in exile in Europe. This is all true. In Neruda, though, Larraín and screenwriter Guillermo Calderón imagine Pablo (Luis Gnecco) as being pursued by a single law enforcement official, Óscar Peluchonneau. To a certain extent, there is truth here as well. Peluchonneau was a real Chilean police investigator who would go on to become the General Director of Investigations. But it won’t take a history book or Wikipedia search to realize that what unfolds in Neruda is largely speculative, verging on fantastical.
So, then, what we have is a fairly recognizable iteration of the “cat and mouse” sub-genre of crime stories. The equality of screen time between the two leads recalls Michael Mann’s Heat. The hints of spiritual guidance and interference call to mind Agent Cooper’s pursuit of Bob on Twin Peaks. The fact that both parties may be unhinged to varying degrees is reminiscent of Luc Besson’s Léon. Yet Neruda never feels derivative (unlike 2014’s lame The Connection, which also lifted liberally from Mann and others) because Larraín very much wants you to recognize these parallels and to understand how the people in his ostensibly true story are behaving according to long-existing narrative conventions.
Neruda, as we know, is a writer. And so it’s not difficult to imagine that he himself would dream up just this kind of story. In fact, since Larraín portrays him as puffed up and arrogant, it’s especially believable that he could conjure a yarn in which he’s the brilliant, elusive quarry to a dogged detective who is as tragically flawed as he is driven. Isn’t it perhaps a little too neat and tidy that the two men are not just situationally opposed but ideologically so as well, with Neruda the idealist and Peluchonneau the nihilist, like a reverse Al Capone and Eliot Ness? And isn’t Neruda’s egotism perfectly undercut by the fact that Peluchonneau is, in fact, a more interesting character than Neruda is, an Anton Chigurh with a natty dress code and a nagging, growing sense of self-doubt? One begins to wonder whether Neruda’s flight from the law isn’t all a bit of performance, especially when it is pointed out to him that he could do more for his cause by being publicly jailed than by fading from the population’s sight, hiding like a cockroach.
Such questions about the verisimilitude of Neruda are complemented by the creeping unreality Larraín eases into the picture. Linear conversations take place over nonlinear montages, like in Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey. Later, more overt fakery such as as obvious rear projection begins to appear.
It would be unkind of me to reveal the transformative blend of reality and unreality of Neruda‘s final scenes. But as the protagonists begin to suspect that they may be characters in a story, we the audience are given cause to reflect on our own participation in the same. Are we interested in history or in archetypes? And are we ourselves archetypes for our willing inclusion? Neruda has no answers for these questions but it asks them in a moving way that sometimes feels like a new achievement in the abilities of narrative.