“Neruda” sounds as though it’s going to be a biopic of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, and in the broadest sense it is. But since the director is Neruda’s countryman Pablo Larrain, and since Larrain’s other 2016 film was “Jackie,” as close to an imagined emotional Rorschach test of Jacqueline Kennedy as we’ll ever see — well, expect the unexpected.
True to form, “Neruda” is less about the poet’s art (at least initially) than about his politics — in particular the months in 1948 and 1949 when Senator Neruda, an avowed communist, was threatened with arrest and forced to go into hiding and exile. A populist hero and the scourge of the ruling bourgeoisie, the portly, aging Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is also an artist, a hedonist, and an egotist, an outsize figure so intent on living lyrically that he fails to recognize his own contradictions, or the personal damage left in his wake.
As directed by Larrain, written by Guillermo Calderon, and shot by Sergio Armstrong, “Neruda” is itself a lyrical experience. It’s photographed in creamy colors that suggest a faded postwar snapshot and graced with a rhapsodic soundtrack of late Romantics (Edvard Grieg) and spiky 20th century Modernists (Charles Ives, Krzysztof Penderecki). Early on we’re introduced to police prefect Oscar Peluchonneau, the Javert to the fugitive Neruda’s Jean Valjean. Oscar serves as the movie’s narrator, and, if anything, he’s more poetic than the poet.
That’s a clue, as is the dapper, playful presence of Gael Garcia Bernal in the role. It takes a movie star to play a character who thinks he’s the star of this movie, even as one onlooker describes Oscar as “half idiot and half moron.” As Neruda leads the prefect on a cross-country chase, leaving pulp detective novels behind as taunting breadcrumbs, “Neruda” gradually and gracefully leaves realism behind to ascend into the snowy wastes of the Andes and the heady precincts of metafiction.
Is the policeman the creation of the poet? Is the poet the creation of the policeman? Is each creating the other, like Escher’s hands forever drawing themselves? What has seemed a lusciously produced but fairly minor pleasure gathers force and by the final scenes acquires the high-wire daring of a story by Nabokov or Borges. “Neruda” is a dream of Chile, of what it was and might have been, brought to the screen by a master dreamer.
Directed by Pablo Larrain. Written by Guillermo Calderon. Starring Luis Gnecco, Gael Garcia Bernal, Mercedes Moran. At Kendall Square. 107 minutes. R (sexuality/nudity, some language). In Spanish, with subtitles.