Pablo Larrain follows up No and The Club with an unlikely, often surreal and incredibly entertaining film that plays fast and loose with facts and time
Benjamin Lee Saturday 14 May 2016 15.50 BST
The basic formula of the biopic has grown almost unbearably tiresome, thanks largely to the annual parade of mostly uninspiring Oscarbait true stories that serve to do nothing but show actors’ “range”. Would the world have stopped spinning if The Danish Girl or Trumbo had never been released?
As a response to the repetition, film-makers have been making more “constructed biopics”, taking elements, ideas and themes then mashing them together to make something less familiar. Born to be Blue, Joy and, most explicitly, I’m Not There have all been upfront about their fabricated narrative, the writers and directors all admitting that some creative license is required to make their subjects fit the medium.
Pablo Larrain is no stranger to this technique, employing Gael Garcia Bernal as a fictional ad man working during the Pinochet referendum in his Oscar-nominated 2012 drama No. He enlists Bernal again in this inventive and entertaining drama about the poet and senator Pablo Neruda and his time in exile in post-second world war Chile.
Bernal plays a detective on the hunt of Neruda, after he’s threatened with impeachment for accusing the government of abandoning communist ideals to appease the US. The two are locked in “a fabulous chase” that’s part myth and part fact, given that the pursuer doesn’t actually exist ...
Larrain’s film is a delicate balancing act and, along with screenwriter Guillermo Calderón, he avoids both smugness and a sense of artificiality with a playful tone and a sharp, meta take on the concept of character and story. Neruda, played by Luis Gnecco who bears a remarkable likeness to the poet, enjoys the thrill of the chase and sends the detective crime novels which then start to transform his character and cause him to question who is controlling his destiny.
It’s also refreshing to see a biopic that doesn’t deify its subject. Neruda is an influential idealist and a skilled poet, but he’s also an egotist and a snob. There’s a fascinating interaction when he’s approached by a fellow Communist who questions him on his growing status and how his persona is ultimately against the ideals of the party. Like the character himself, the film never stays still and is vibrant with ideas and energy.
Similarly, the detective on Neruda’s trail is anything but a cliche. He’s a man trying to figure out who his father is by examining his own actions and is torn between his artistic sensibilities and his more rigid profession. He’s also excited by the romance of the chase, questioning whether he’s the hero or the supporting character and the film leads the two characters to a surprisingly poignant finale.
Neruda takes a lot of wild chances and, like the poet whose life acts as inspiration, it’s unwilling to play by the rules. Dizzily constructed and full of more life and meaning than most “real” biopics, it’s a risk worth taking.
On top of this week's exhumation, research is underlining why the newly-installed junta was so keen to be rid of him
Oscar Guardiola-Rivera Wednesday 10 April 2013 10.42 BST
On 22 September 1973, Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda – whom Gabriel García Márquez dubbed "the greatest poet of the 20th century" – received some visitors at the Santa María hospital in Chile's capital Santiago. Among them were Sweden's ambassador Harald Edelstam and the Mexican ambassador Gonzalo Martínez Corbala, offering a plane to fly Neruda and his wife Matilde into exile.
We know about their conversation thanks to as yet unpublished documents at the National Archive in Sweden. Edelstam asserts he found the poet "very ill" though still willing to travel to Mexico. In a memo sent to his superiors, Edelstam observes: "In his last hours [Neruda] either didn't know or didn't recognise he suffered a terminal illness. He complained that rheumatism made it impossible to move his arms and legs. When we visited him, Neruda was preparing as best he could to travel … to Mexico. There, he would make a public declaration against the military regime."
That made the poet dangerous to some very powerful people, who had shown they would stop at nothing to defend their interests. They had ousted his friend, Salvador Allende, from the presidency less than a fortnight earlier. Allende died in a coup that was as much about silencing dissident voices as bringing about regime change. Another voice, that of popular singer Víctor Jara, was cut off four days later. Neruda remained. He was perhaps the loudest. His face certainly the most recognisable worldwide. He was too dangerous.
Members of the junta are on record expressing the view on the morning of September 22 that if Neruda flew into exile, his plane would fall into the sea. In the afternoon, radio stations under military control announced the poet would probably die in the next few hours, at a time when he was still awake in the hospital. The following day he was dead.
That historical mystery alone explains why his body was exhumed this week. But there are more pressing reasons too, at a time when the destiny of the left hangs in the balance in Latin America. The death of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, one of many leftist leaders in the region to have fallen ill to cancer, has combined with the 700 documented assassination attempts against Cuba's Fidel Castro to fuel all manner of conspiracy theories.
More important still is the fact that, faced with an economic crisis without foreseeable end and few alternatives, a new generation of world activists needs to reconnect with the vibrant political imagination embodied by Neruda. The question is not merely whether the commitment he exemplified is possible now, but whether technology, and the institutions we use to manage it, can allow the kind of freedom Neruda called for in his poetry.
In this context, Neruda's life, as well as the shadows cast by his death, are Google-bombs waiting to be set off by a new generation of networked freedom fighters at the heart of our austerity-obsessed, repressive, and frankly boring narratives.
Neruda wasn't surprised by the 1973 coup – most people knew that the consequences of restoring "economic order" would be vicious, and many accepted it as necessary – but it wasn't inevitable: under a deal accepted by the government coalition as well as the opposition, President Allende was going to call for a referendum and would have resigned if the result went against him. This made any show of force by the smaller but influential sector within the Chilean armed forces unnecessary. But the conspirators were bent on regime change, so they brought forward the date of the coup, subjecting Chilean society to a trial by fire in order to cure it of a supposedly menacing communist "cancer".
The invocation of "cancer" to provide yesterday's rulers with a pretext to unleash war abroad and repression at home is mirrored by the questions being asked about Neruda's cancer today.
Neruda and the other individuals behind the Chilean revolution of the early 1970s made mistakes and were at least partially responsible for the consequences. But the real story behind their defeat and deaths hasn't been told yet. This is one of the reasons why people are looking to unearth new truths, hoping to shed some light on the origins of our problems today.
Through histories, testimonies, and documents declassified in the US or revealed as recently as last year by Wikileaks, we now know that the fate of Neruda and others like him had been decided long before they had any hand in mismanaging the economy or dividing political opinion. Persecution of the left had begun in Chile as early as 1948, at the behest of a US government awash with anti-communist paranoia.
That year, a controversial measure known as "the Damned Law" ("la ley maldita") outlawed the Chilean Communist Party, sent the communist leadership into exile and imprisoned hundreds of militants at the Pisagua camp under the orders of a young lieutenant named Augusto Pinochet – the concentration camp's director who would become Chile's dictator, and a friend and inspiration to Margaret Thatcher.
Neruda, radicalised like many others by the anti-fascist struggle of the 1930s and 40s, chose to flee the country. Fearing for his life he crossed the Andes on a horse, carrying with him the manuscript of his epic poem Canto General, before resurfacing in Mexico thanks to the help of his friends Pablo Picasso and Diego Rivera.
His second exile would have been in 1973. Edelstam's conversation with Neruda took place a mere two hours before the poet went to sleep, never to wake up again. When the Swedish diplomat went to Neruda's house to offer his condolences, he found it destroyed. Pinochet's men were bent on erasing every trace of his existence. They would do the same with thousands of people during a reign of terror that would last for nearly two decades. That is why so many people this week are holding their breath to find out what clues Neruda's exhumed body might hold.
• Oscar Guardiola-Rivera's Story of a Death Foretold: The Coup against Salvador Allende, 11 September 1973 will be published by Bloomsbury in September
Pablo Neruda, a Passion for Life
Bloomsbury £9.99, pp422
Rebecca Seal The Observer Sunday 20 November 2005 01.43 GMT
There is no doubt that Pablo Neruda led an extraordinary life - poet, diplomat, Stalinist, communist, journalist, philanderer, husband and Nobel prize-winner.
Feinstein's book takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of that life, starting with his birth in 1904 into a somewhat itinerant Chilean family, made up of uncles who were in fact his half-brothers and sisters secretly born of his father's affairs. By the age of 16 he had left home for Santiago and his poems were already being published - even if some of them were, by his own admission, mawkish and adolescent.
The publication of Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair set the scene for the fame he was to have for the rest of his life, and allowed Neruda to start working as a diplomat (it was something of a Latin-American tradition to give poets a stipend based on diplomatic duties). In turn, this led Neruda towards communism and eventually Stalinism - something which resulted in him having to go into hiding and then exile, after the Chilean government declared him an outlaw. At the same time he managed to continue his political agitation, marry three times, travel widely and publish prolifically, eventually winning the Noble Prize for Literature in 1971.
This book is a loving portrait of a very unusual man. Feinstein has reverently pieced together information from memoirs, articles and interviews to create this biography, one of only very few written about Neruda. Unfortunately, that can make it read like a text book or scholarly work, and at times Feinstein slips into listing facts and events with little in the way of narrative or reflection.
None the less, this remains a fascinating insight into the life of one of the most important poets of the 20th century.