Few movie genres are more plentiful and less satisfying than Hollywood biopics. We all know the type: usually a rags to riches story, often starting in media res close to the person's climactic point in his or her life only to flash back to those humble beginnings, returning to the opening scene right at the start of the third act. There are at least two scenes, one a fight with a confidant or a significant other, the second a moment of quiet introspection, that seem designed to be the perfect Oscar reel. It's a formula that exists because it works, garnering truckloads of gold statues for films like Walk the Line, The King's Speech and A Beautiful Mind. It's a formula so established, though, that is has become rote, with a sense of cynicism creeping in over the decades. It becomes second nature to assume the film was pitched, greenlit and made because it is the sort to win Oscars and bring prestige to the studio, that it got the star it got because he or she could imagine striding across the stage of the Dolby Theatre, outstretched hand awaiting the golden idol. Sometimes, for an otherwise wretched film like The Iron Lady, it works (for Meryl Streep at least, not so much for the audience). Other times, like Clint Eastwood's infamous disaster J. Edgar, it really (really) (resoundingly) doesn't. Either way, it's a genre that will never go away, and those of us who see movies for a living just have to deal with it, even as the returns continue to diminish at an alarming rate.
That sentiment could be a driving force for why the films of Pablo Larrain feel so edifying. The Chilean director has worked in the true story realm before, perhaps most notably with 2012's delightfully energetic No, following the story of an ad executive working to stop the reign of Pinochet not through revolution or coup, but through television ads. No was nominated for the Foreign Language Academy Award that year (losing out to Michael Haneke's masterpiece Amour - by no means an insult), and its use of period technology to recreate the feel of the 1980's made Larrain one to watch on the international stage. And he will surely be one to watch this year, with two biopics seeing release within a scant few weeks of each other in the US. Jackie (reviewed here earlier this month) is the higher profile of the two, poised to make an awards run that could see nominations for Best Picture and Best Actress for Natalie Portman's portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy. Lesser known, though also possibly eyeing Oscar success as the official submission for Chile, is his look at the country's favored poet son, Pablo Neruda.
As one would expect, Neruda follows the life of the Chilean poet, politician and diplomat (played by Luis Gnecco), but that is pretty much where the expectations end. Larrain and screenwriter Guillermo Calderón focus in on his time in exile, the criminalization of Communism making him a fugitive in his own country. As he goes underground, he is pursued by a police investigator, Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal, the star of No), who will stop at nothing to bring him to heel. There is a bit of a catch though: Óscar doesn't actually exist, and is essentially a writerly flourish of Neruda's to mythologize his exile into something more grand, when in actuality he simply lives on the outskirts of society, indulging in hedonist fantasies with his companion (Mercedes Morán) and occasionally writing and reciting poetry for the local color. Óscar is a living film noir stereotype, Sam Spade meeting Walter Neff by way of a less bumbling Inspector Clouseau, stoic and austere with perpetually squinted eyes and an immaculately maintained mustache. He is as much a poet as Neruda, terse in dialogue but given to florid narration that dominates his sections of a film very much set in parallel. It's the life Neruda's living versus the one he wants everyone to think he's living, all played out in the same movie.
It is such a marvelous conceit, and so deftly implemented on all sides, from Garcia Bernal's perfectly pitched performance with just the tiniest hint of comedy flickering below his dour demeanor to cinematographer Sergio Armstrong and editor Hervé Schneid tuning up the unreality ever so slightly to highlight the sense that he doesn't operate in the real world without turning his scenes into cartoon fiction. It is a fiction, of course, one marked by using rear projection during driving sequences and dreamlike 360 degree camera pans and minor shifts in location mid-conversation (even the way dialogue coverage is shot is specifically tinged with artifice, the backs of heads obscuring too much of the foreground), a jazz noir soundtrack floating through the background of it all. By the time Neruda and Óscar meet face to face (of a sort) in the Andes mountains as Pablo makes a break for Argentina, the clash of worlds seems impossible, the mundane Neruda, almost too fat to mount a horse properly, pitched against his mythically perfect foil. He needs an antagonist to escape to cement his political legacy, so why wait around for one when he can use his greatest talent to forge him from nothingness?
We don't glean all that much about Pablo Neruda the artist from Pablo Neruda the man in Neruda, but in Óscar, his creation, Larrain has given us everything we need to know and more. Both Garcia Bernal and Gnecco are sublime in portraying these subtle shades of the man, the myth and the legend of arguably the greatest poet of the 20th century, with Larrain and co. breathing so much life into both the reality and unreality of 1940's Chile. But, perhaps most importantly, Neruda once again shows the potential the otherwise tired biopic genre can have when a director has the confidence to blow it all up and start again from scratch. Larrain surely is not the only director to mess with the form and possibilities of biopics, but with No, Jackie, and now Neruda, he has established himself as one of the most exciting and vital voices in biographical cinema today. The best biopics use unconventional means to get to the heart of their subjects, and it's tough to imagine means more satisfyingly unconventional than Neruda.