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Film Focus: the ‘Neruda’ wild hunt, subverting the Biopic

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Following Wednesday’s film screening, BristoLatino’s Film Edior, Joel Dwek, analyses Larraín’s techniques of subverting the biopic to present Chile’s most illustrious figure, Pablo Neruda

There are, broadly speaking, two types of biopic (some, of course, don’t fit neatly into either of the following categories, like the offbeat Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There). The first, more traditional type is the sweeping epic, depicting its protagonist from cradle to grave. Think Gandhi, Lawrence of Arabia, or Frida. All of these explore the lives of their protagonists with a wide scope, providing an almost ‘greatest hits’ approach to the accomplishments. The other main form takes one key moment in a historical figure’s life and shows the protagonist in detail. This may not provide a comprehensive examination of the life of an individual, but it can often provide deeper insight into the character of the person in question. Examples of this type would be the recent hit Darkest Hour, The Queen, and Downfall, which focus on Churchill’s first few days as prime minister, the Queen’s relationship with Tony Blair in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death and Hitler’s last few days in his Berlin bunker respectively. All take one relatively short yet defining moment to depict on screen. Neruda, directed by Pablo Larraín, falls into the latter category and is an example of how this style of biopic can be unconventional in turning biopic tropes on their head, whilst it allows us insight into Pablo Neruda’s impact on Chilean history and culture.

Neruda begins in media res, with Pablo Neruda (played by Luis Gnecco) walking into a grand chamber, while being accused of all sorts, from Communist sympathies to supporting violence against police officers. We then come to know that Neruda has walked into the Chilean senate and is also a senator for the Communist Party. This is then immediately contrasted with a debauched party scene, with Neruda hosting. Instantly, within less than five minutes we have a perfect impression of the man Pablo Larraín wants to present to us. We know he is dedicated to his politics, while also a man who likes to live life to the full. This economical style helps the film enormously; it doesn’t waste time in getting to the main narrative either, allowing the film to focus on the comedic escapades of Neruda whilst on the run.

Another interesting spin Larraín puts onto the biopic format is in the narration. It is not from the perspective of Neruda, but by Gael García Bernal’s character, the police inspector Oscar Peluchonneau, that the narration is provided. Although he was a real person he is almost entirely fictionalised, and this does several things: one, it allows the audience to view Neruda from a distance in some scenes, so we can get a sense of what the man was like to be around. Two, by employing the perspective of Peluchonneau who both loves and hates Neruda, we can get a measure of Neruda’s hypocrisies; and three, it reminds us that what we are seeing is a reconstruction of events and not the events themselves. Through this shift of perspective, we are reminded of the artifice of the biopic. What is represented is not all factually accurate, but rather it points to a higher truth about Neruda and his significance in Chilean society. Was it really true, as the President of Chile says, that Neruda could quieten a crowd of 10,000 people just by producing a paper from his pocket that presumably had a poem written on it? Maybe. But it doesn’t matter, this film is more about the personality of the man and his enduring public image in Chile than it is about facts and dates. To further this symbolism of Neruda as a figure above everyone else, when his wife Delia is conversing with Peluchonneau she tells him you couldn’t shoot him if you tried. Part intimidation tactic, this also helps serve the function of presenting Neruda as the figure he appeared to be – untouchable.

While it is a story of political repression and a police investigation, it never loses its snappy, fun nature, which is a reflection of the public image of Neruda that Larraín is choosing to portray

Larraín said as much in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine: “I’m Chilean; Neruda is in the water, in the earth, in the trees. He is someone who is very important for us, not just because of what it means in terms of his poetry and his political activism … That’s why we like to say that this isn’t a biopic, it’s not a movie about Neruda. It’s a movie about the Neruda cosmos … He was a senator, he was a political leader, he could have been the president of Chile, and he was one of the greatest poets in our language, so he’s someone who is un-grabbable. You’re not going to be able to put him in a box. It’s impossible”. He goes on to say that they could take liberties with the truth because “once you understand that you’re not going to be able to grasp him, it gives you a lot of freedom to approach him through the arbitraries of fiction”

Indeed, Peluchonneau’s narration calls the manhunt to find Neruda a persecución fabulosa, a fabulous chase. With that phrase in mind, Neruda himself echoes it, saying his time as a fugitive will have to be a cacería salvaje, a wild hunt. Both of these statements, from the two main figures of the film allow us to indulge in the more extravagant Buñuelian inflections that the film adds to the story – Neruda’s increasingly flamboyant disguises, his increasingly ridiculous escapes from the law, Peluchonneau’s fear of being a fictional character in someone else’s story. While it is a story of political repression and a police investigation, it never loses its snappy, fun nature, which is a reflection of the public image of Neruda that Larraín is choosing to portray.

Therefore, while Neruda is very much a biopic, Larraín’s techniques aim to subvert the genre. The Neruda of Neruda is the icon of Chilean culture, but also a flawed human being. It’s not from Neruda’s perspective, it’s not (like many other biopics) overly flattering to its subject, and nor is it concerned with facts or actual events, rather it uses its visual style and concise storytelling to provide a well-rounded view of the poet and his influence on Chilean culture, as opposed to claiming any particular insight into what made Neruda tick.