#OscarsSoWTF. This past year, the great Chilean director Pablo Larraín (The Club) presented the world with a pair of films in which famous names figure prominently. Jackie centered on the days following the Kennedy assassination and Natalie Portman's whispery imitation of the First Widow. Neruda also takes a page from history, but it transforms real events and people into a work of towering beauty and imagination by slyly intertwining fact and fantasy, politics and poetry.
Inexplicably, the former film received multiple nominations from the Academy, while the latter — arguably the year's most apposite work of cinema — was completely ignored.
"In the middle of the night I ask myself / what will happen to Chile? / What will become of my poor, dark country... / I feel that now / with the dead year of doubt scarcely over... / the menace once again appears / and on the walls a rising rancor..." Talk about history repeating itself. Though it reads like something an American poet might have written in the past month, "Insomnia" was composed by Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda in 1964. Yup, a Chilean election year.
Neruda opens in 1948, when the poet was so famous and beloved by the people of Chile, both working-class and cultured, that he was as influential as a high-ranking politician. In fact, he was a high-ranking politician, representing the Communist Party in the Chilean senate. A surreal early scene shows Neruda joking and discussing issues of the day with colleagues in the most majestic men's room in movie history. "Emperor Caligula," one calls him, alluding to the writer-statesman's legendary sensualism. Despite a belly and comb-over, the dude was a rock star.
Larraín and screenwriter Guillermo Calderón keep the unexpected touches coming. It's a fact that, at this time, President Videla (Alfredo Castro) outlawed communism, forcing Neruda to go underground. A warrant was indeed issued for his arrest. It is pure fantasy, however, that a detective named Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal, never better) was assigned to track Neruda down and pursued him into the snowy southern mountains. The film is such a playful feat of metafiction that the fictitious inspector himself provides its narration.
Peluchonneau is a tragic figure straight out of the trashy crime fiction the real Neruda savored so improbably. His growing self-doubt reaches its zenith when the poet's wife (Mercedes Morán) confronts him with the concept that he's merely a supporting character in a story her husband is writing. "He created you," she taunts the officer. "He thinks about you thinking about him." Did I mention that Picasso (Emilio Gutiérrez Caba) pops by as a sort of artistic partner in crime? That's a lot of Pablos.
Invention drenches every frame of this film. The acting's magnificent, the dialogue's a delight, and its visuals will take your breath away. As captured by cinematographer Sergio Armstrong, Neruda's Chile is a phantasmagoria of often-dreamlike shadow, color and light. Think David Lean on acid.
Equal parts detective story, political thriller, chase movie, black comedy and head trip, Larraín's film is unequaled in its breadth and intellectual boldness. The furthest thing imaginable from a traditional biopic, Neruda is that rarest of achievements: a work about an artist that is itself a work of art.
Neruda will be screened on March 20 and 23 as part of the Green Mountain Film Festival in Montpelier (gmffestival.org) and on April 26 in Alumni Auditorium at Champlain College in Burlington as a benefit for the Vermont International Film Foundation and the Burlington Book Festival.