After a recent foray into American history (Jackie), Chilean director Pablo Larrain returns to his wheelhouse — the messy politics and culture of his homeland. His latest work is a fictionalized biopic depicting the travails of Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) when, in 1948, the Communist politician and revered poet went on the run from the government.
But first — a pissing contest (the film opens in a very luxe men’s room) and a party, where the prankish Neruda, under the bemused eye of his artist wife (Mercedes Moran), cavorts with topless beauties, drag queens and assorted glitterati.
But soon, the people’s poet is on the run, holing up in cramped apartments, scribbling new poems to be mailed to waiting colleagues, admirers and campesinos. In pursuit is the cartoonishly serious policeman Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal), who is consumed with his singular mission to locate Neruda. Peluchonneau trails close enough that Neruda taunts him, delivering volumes of crime fiction, the tropes of which are also incorporated by Larrain into the film’s narrative. Each man takes turns delivering voiceovers, explaining himself, and the meaning of the two lives finally intertwine in an almost-fantastical closing sequence.
Larrain’s film is hardly a straightforward biography — the more you already know about Neruda and Chilean politics, the better off you will be. (Nibbling around the edges of this caperish tale is Chile’s impending political turmoil; blink and you’ll miss Augusto Pinochet’s cameo.) But it is marvelously acted and mostly entertaining, if you don’t mind a film that frequently criss-crosses lanes between historical, satirical and a bit self-consciously self-important.