There may be no greater ambassador for Chile’s complex historical identity than Pablo Larrain, the writer-director whose diverse filmography explores his country’s struggles from a variety of inventive directions. While “Tony Manero” and “Post Mortem” offered bleak, subversive allegorical statements on life under dictatorship, the Oscar-nominated “No” explored the climax of the Pinochet dictatorship in thrillingly immediate terms, while “The Club” took a minimalist approach to examining disgraced members of Catholic Church.
Now comes his most ambitious storytelling effort to date, “Neruda,” which begins as a straightforward period piece before evolving into something far more intriguing: a meditation on the country’s mythological relationship to heroes and villains told from two sides at once. While at times uneven, it’s a constantly surprising consolidation of the projects leading up to it.
The titular focus is Chilean poet and senator Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco), a boisterous figure valorized by his followers even as he’s impeached by President Gonzalez Videla (Larrain regular Alfredo Castro) for public accusations against the government about abandoning its communist roots to please the United States. Set in the immediate aftermath of World War II, “Neruda” quickly finds the poet forced into hiding, while investigator Oscar Peluchonneau (“No” star Gael Garcia Bernal) sets about to track him down.
At first, “Neruda” reeks of artificiality that lends the distracting air of a tired melodrama. But that’s all part of the plan for Larrain, who gradually transforms the story into a self-aware gamble. The portly, charismatic Neruda finds respite from his conundrum by leaving clues for the investigator as he wanders the countryside. With time, it becomes clear just how much the exuberant tone is a conscious device.
Narrated by Peluchonneau as he envisions his pursuit of Neruda in grandiose terms, the film becomes less about the political turmoil of the time and more invested in elaborating on the swooning romanticism of the poet’s conundrum. Bernal’s character eventually takes center stage as he hopelessly follows the bread crumbs, inadvertently becoming a central figure in the drama that Neruda scripts in real time — and liking it.
From the use of rear projection when the characters drive around to the fantastical moments that define the story’s climactic showdown, “Neruda” relies on a series of inventive devices to elaborate on the personal impulses driving both men to see themselves in a broader historical context. Gnecco’s energetic presence provides a fascinating contrast to Bernal’s intensity as the man continues to obsess over his target, ultimately leading him on a fool’s errand to the outer reaches of the country. Bernal has rarely been better in a role that makes him alternately pathetic and passionate; Mercedes Moran rounds out the core cast as Neruda’s passionate wife, whose devotion to aiding the poet in his flight as well as his legend bolsters the emotional foundation.
The movie sometimes veers off on tonally confusing tangents, but its central focus develops an absorbing form of existential intrigue: Is this historical fiction or a meditation on the process of writing history? In its shrewdest moments, “Neruda” argues that they’re one and the same. Its finale erupts with an operatic montage that unites real events with the obsessive desire of these characters to put themselves at the center of a public memory — and its very existence proves that they pulled it off. The memorable closing shots have a dreamlike quality that reinvigorates everything leading up to them.
For Larrain, “Neruda” provides a reasonable cap to the initial stage of his career as he gears up for his first English-language effort, the Natalie Portman-starring Jackie Onasis biopic “Jackie.” While his fixation on historical events will continue, “Neruda” turns all of the filmmaker’s preceding statements on his native land into a unified whole. In essence, the film asserts that even as history passes into legend, it speaks to deeper truths.
“Neruda” premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.