“Neruda,” Pablo Larraín’s semifantastical biopic, is a warmhearted film about a hot-blooded man that is nonetheless troubled by a subtle, perceptible chill. Blending fact with invention, it tells the story of a confrontation between an artist (Chilean poet Pablo Neruda) and an emerging dictatorship, and more generally illuminates the endless struggle between political authority and the creative imagination. For anyone who believes that poetry and democracy spring from the same source and provoke the same enemies, this movie provides encouragement and warning.
It starts, cameras whirling and swooping, in 1948, with Neruda (Luis Gnecco), a prominent leftist politician as well as a literary celebrity, in a rhetorical war with Chile’s president, Gabriel González Videla, an erstwhile ally in the process of moving from left to right. When Videla bans the Communist Party, Neruda — who represents that party in the Chilean Senate — goes from opposition figure to outlaw. Much of “Neruda” is a shaggy-dog cat-and-mouse game, as Neruda and his wife, Delia (Mercedes Morán), are pursued by Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), a preening police inspector who stakes his professional honor on his ability to track down the country’s most famous fugitive.
Peluchonneau is an invented character, a creature conjured from crime fiction and touched with philosophical melancholy as well as ruthlessness. Whippet-thin and strait-laced, he stands in dour contrast to Neruda, a plump sensualist with a robust sense of mischief and an inexhaustible appetite for pleasure. With and without Delia, the poet manages to stay one step ahead of his nemesis, executing a series of escapes that seem equally inspired by Hitchcock and those old Peter Sellers “Pink Panther” movies.
Neruda also composes “Canto General,” his great, Whitmanesque work on the glories and miseries of Latin America. Pages are distributed clandestinely, and committed to memory by workers and peasants. Their popularity, and Neruda’s easygoing populism, are a rebuke to the arrogance of the ruling class and the Chilean state. And Larraín’s eye for the rugged beauty of Chile’s protean landscapes implies a similar argument. The poet is open to nature and humanity. The policeman is consumed by rules, tactics and procedures.
Peluchonneau is a tragically constricted soul, but not an entirely unsympathetic character. Neruda is a heroic figure — comic and Dionysian, brilliant and naughty — but his personal Javert is in some ways the film’s protagonist. Neruda is annoyed and sometimes amused by the detective’s doggedness, but Peluchonneau is haunted by the poet’s mystique, and by a growing sense of his own incompleteness. A curious symbiosis develops between them, a dynamic more complex and strange than the simple conflict of good and evil.
Larraín is a master of moral ambiguity. His previous films about Chile — “Tony Manero,” “No” (which also starred Bernal) and “The Club” — are interested in collaboration as well as resistance, in the inner lives of the corrupt as well as the actions of the virtuous. Those movies, in particular “Tony Manero,” set during the military dictatorship in the 1970s, and “The Club,” about a group of disgraced priests, are studies in claustrophobia, with cloudy cinematography and grubby behavior.
“Neruda” has a looser story, richer colors and a more buoyant spirit. It is less abrasive than Larraín’s Chilean trilogy, and less intensely focused than “Jackie,” his new English-language film about Jacqueline Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination. But like that unorthodox foray into history, this one approaches political issues from an oblique angle, looking for the idiosyncrasies and ironies that humanize the pursuit of ideals and the exercise of power.