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Is every piece of art about Donald Trump? It sure feels that way these days. That’s what happens when a cataclysmic event invades your consciousness—you see it everywhere. Remember all those movies about grief at the end of 2016, like Arrival, Manchester by the Sea, and Jackie? They were all about Democrats dealing with the results of the election. And so is Neruda, a biopic of the late Chilean Communist Pablo Neruda. At least, it starts that way.
“You were so thirsty for power that you let yourself be fooled by a three-penny populist,” says a colleague to Neruda (Luis Gnecco) in an early scene. Guess where your mind goes. In post-war Chile, Neruda, a sitting senator and poet laureate of sorts, backed the wrong presidential candidate, and now his comrades are being rounded up and sent to work camps presided over by a “blue-eyed fox” named Augusto Pinochet. Synapses start firing in the brain, connecting their time to ours.
Soon, though, Neruda slips comfortably into genre, and your anxieties loosen. After a warrant is issued for his arrest, Neruda must choose between prison and life as a fugitive. Neruda decides to flee, which sets in motion a cat-and-mouse game between the poet-politician and Oscar Peluchonneau, a detective Gael Garcia Bernal plays with quiet intelligence.
Neruda isn’t a polemic, and it’s never quite clear how invested the poet is in the cause. A rock star poet with a paunch and a receding hairline, Neruda is more hedonist than Communist. He likes to write, screw, smoke, and drink, but he loves nothing more than his own legend. So when he chooses to live underground, among his vast network of starstruck supporters, he seems driven more by his own legend than loyalty to his people. In one scene, he complains that his accommodations are too secretive. “You want them to find you?” his girlfriend asks. “No, but I’d like them to feel closer,” he responds coyly.
It’s complicated material, but a natural fit for esteemed Chilean director Pablo Larrain, who has shown a keen eye for how politics intersect with storytelling and mythmaking. His 2012 feature No depicted how American advertising techniques were used to beat Pinochet in his 1988 re-election campaign. Last year, he directed Jackie, which showed Jackie Kennedy create the legend of the Kennedy administration as Camelot in the days after her husband’s assassination.
In Neruda, Larrain relies on both formal tricks and narrative focus to explore the intersection of celebrity, politics, and story. With Neruda on the run, many scenes take place in cars, and Larrain uses rear projection—that fake-looking screen behind a prop car—to draw attention to the artifice of the film. Thematically, Larrain increasingly focuses on the shared space between the inspector and his fugitive, who seem to grow closer in mind as the chase goes on. Depicting the thin line between actors on either side of the law is a well-worn convention, but Larrain views it through a poetic lens, inverting their relationship until it resembles something like affection. The inspector at one point refers to Neruda as a “public menace and an unforgettable lover.”
In the final third, Neruda evolves into a straightforward chase story, with the policeman relentlessly following the politician into the snowy wilderness, but even this is not so simple. Capturing him seems physically impossible, like trying to grasp a poem in your hands. Through all this, Larrain never lets the viewer feel confused. He evokes the comfort of good fiction in every shot and every scene, even as his characters struggle to find the truth amid propaganda and lies. If only reality were directed so competently.
Neruda opens Friday at Bethesda Row.