To go by its title alone, Pablo Larraín’s Neruda sounds like the type of film you could watch ahead of your poetry final. But to expect a straight biopic of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is to underestimate the Tony Manero filmmaker. The director is less interested in telling a story about Neruda as he is about creating a Nerudian story. And so, the film introduces us to the affable poet (played with gusto by Luis Gnecco) who, by the late 1940s, is a superstar among the country’s leftist elite. He regales guests at his parties with his most famous verses (“Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche…”) and champions the ideals of the working class.
Soon enough, Larraín’s film becomes a Latin American take on the noir film, though one led by a bumbling if dashing detective: Gael García Bernal’s Óscar Peluchonneau. He’s tasked with finding the poet and his self-serious take on the challenge is matched by his ill-preparedness to deal with what’s to come. The thrill and the humor of the film comes from seeing him fail time and time again, even as Neruda enjoys becoming a wanted enemy of the state, turning his chase into a playful game of cat-and-mouse. Beautifully capturing the look of 1940s Chile as if it were the backdrop for a studio Hollywood film and featuring an editing style that’s sure to make watching the film a dizzying exercise, Neruda is unlike any other film you’ll see this year.
During the New York Film Festival, where Larraín screened both of his latest films, Remezcla sat down with the Chilean director to talk about this dryly comic puzzle of a film which may well win him an Oscar nomination in January. In between chatting about Pedro Almodóvar’s assertion that Neruda was the best movie he’d seen this year (“He’s so generous”) and talk of directing Natalie Portman in Jackie (“I said I would only do the film with her”), Larraín opened up about what influenced this “anti-biopic,” how you can see the similarities in the film to the work of Jorge Luis Borges and Picasso, and what he thinks of the current state of Latin American cinema. Check out highlights from our conversation below and read what he had to say about making Jackie here.
On Directing an Anti-Biopic
“It’s a noir film. It’s also a chase movie, it has thriller elements. It’s a road movie. It’s a black comedy. It’s a Nerudian cocktail.”
Look, Neruda was a man who was a great cook. He was an expert in food and wine. He was a man who traveled all over the world and collected all sorts of things like pieces and fabrics and objects. And he would be a diplomat. He was an expert on literature, on crime novels. He was a politician, he was the leader of the communist party—just a social icon. And he was a poet. One of the greatest poets ever. And someone who would describe our nation through poetry in a way that nobody has done. No journalist would be able to describe us that way and that was the beauty of it. So you can’t put him in a box. It’s ungraspable. It’s not just too big but it’s like in the air, in the water — you can’t catch it. I don’t think this is a biopic. That’s why we say it’s an anti-biopic and it’s more about his cosmos. It’s like going to his house and playing with his toys, more than making a movie about Neruda. I don’t this movie will be at schools if you want to know who he was (or maybe, you never know!). We didn’t attempt to do it. More like a cubist kind of movie. That’s why I think Picasso is the key in the film. Not just as a character in the film but in terms of the period and how they worked. As someone who would make a very big canvas with multiple ideas, like “Guernica,” with different shapes and when you would get far you could see the combination of all those elements that would trigger something that is unexplainable. And that’s what we attempted to do.
On the Film’s Dark Humor
I remember we submitted the movie to Cannes and you have to fill a form. It goes: title of the film, then sound (Dolby or whatever), length of the film, color or whatever, and then it would go and say “genre.” And someone from my office called me and asked me “What do I put here?” I was just like, leave it blank. But you can’t submit it without filling it. I called the festival because what is this? It’s a noir film. It has elements from the 40s and the 50s movies. It’s also a chase movie, it has thriller elements, kind of. It’s a cat-and-mouse. It’s a road movie. It’s a black comedy. It’s a Nerudian cocktail. That’s what inspired us. All the time we were playing with it. I understand that the movie goes very serious and sometimes people laugh here and there but I was laughing all the time—I had to leave the set multiple times just to not distract the actors because it was just so funny. It’s like a game, somehow.
On Gael’s Mysterious Face
His character is someone who is understanding himself by chasing Neruda. So when you work from there the chasing of Neruda, the chase itself, the going into places with the police work—it’s irrelevant. I mean, you need it, but it’s not what we’re after. That’s why he’s always late, always missing stuff. At some point you discover he has to chase him but not grab him. So it’s an existential trip to his own identity. So on one side you have Neruda who is building his legend, and on the other someone who is understanding who he was. There’s a beauty in someone who is chasing himself, finally. And Gael gets at that, at the essence of cinema which is, to me, mystery. Gael is a guy who could play a character that could tell you what he thinks and feels—anything, really—but you look at him and you say, something’s going on here. And that’s just cinema. I don’t see any other art form that could do that. It’s fascinating.
On Echoing Literature’s Latin American Boom of the 1960s
Those guys had a different perspective that is very hard to understand today. They were modernists. They had different dreams and they were very serious about it. They worked their art form in order to change people’s minds and protect the social and political project. We’re talking about right after the second World War. This is like ten years before the Cuban revolution. So it’s funny, Gael keeps saying this and it’s true, that when he did The Motorcycle Diaries, which is this trip all over South America that Che Guevara did with his friend, it’s the same years. So that’s the moment. These were people who wanted to change the world and that process ended, at least in my country, with Allende coming to power. And the other candidate was Neruda. And he was very generous and stepped aside and said, go on. He became the president and Pinochet came in and I did three movies out of it. But it’s incredible what they were chasing and it’s hard to understand today because we have the advantage of time. We know what happened. And we can’t be naive about it. You can’t make a movie about this period without really acknowledging what you know. So instead of going to those days and kind of pretend that we don’t know what happens, we assume the information we have and build with it.
On the Film’s Unusual Editing Style
“It’s hard to explain… there’s a limit when we talk about cinema — it’s just like music, at some point you just have to listen to it.”
What happens is that we would shoot dialogue in multiple locations and then just switch during the editing between those locations. So the space became more like a psychological part of the narrative. There is that sense, as you say, that it’s a Latin American style, a Latin American sensibility. It’s true. And it’s specially in this movie where literature is so important, and its influence is more than cinema. Especially in the structure. It’s hard to explain because you work so hard to make a movie and that’s what’s interesting but there’s a limit when we talk about cinema—it’s just like music, at some point you just have to listen to it.
On the Current State of Latin American Cinema
If you look back and see what’s probably the most interesting cinema made in Latin America between the 60s and the 80s, probably you’ll find people who had a lot of things in common. As I see it today, what we’re doing is very different. And it’s just people who are putting their own desires on the screen and I think that’s one of the keys. It’s hard for me because I’m part of the issue—I’d say I meet all these directors when we travel or even in my country I know most of the directors who are making movies. And it’s very hard to build bridges among us. In my country there are people making movies about martial arts, romantic comedies, dramas, political stuff. How do you connect them? I don’t know! Somebody could do it but I can’t. What I do see is these people who are being very honest with themselves. And that honesty goes on the screen. So you’re seeing a piece of work that nobody else could make.
Neruda opens in select theaters on December 16, 2016.