“Neruda” is a delightful mishmash of two disparate genres: the biopic and film noir. Director Pablo Larraín and screenwriter Guillermo Calderón take an unconventionally oblique approach to honor Pablo Neruda, the beloved Chilean poet and politician. The cumulative effect is cerebral, not emotional: Larraín uses movie tropes to deepen our respect for Neruda and what he meant to his countrymen. If anything, “Neruda” is a little too timid, which is ironic considering Neruda was unconcerned with manners or good taste. Either way, it is rare to see a fact-based film with this much daring or formal beauty.
When we meet Neruda (Luis Gnecco), in 1948, he is preparing for a decadent party. Dressing as Lawrence of Arabia, he revels hedonistically among Chile’s intelligentsia. But after openly criticizing his government’s rightward shift, the Communist Neruda finds himself an enemy of the state. He and his wife, Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), go into hiding, depending on the kindness of their friends, who offer up one apartment to squat in after another (although Neruda soon grows restless, wandering off to more late-night parties). Gael García Bernal plays Oscar Peluchonneau, a policeman whose sole task is to catch Neruda. The film is a cat-and-mouse game between the two, leading them from the streets of Santiago to the snowy mountains of the Andes.
Like Larraín’s 2012 Oscar nominee “No” and his other recent biopic “Jackie,” “Neruda” uses an immersive form of cinematography. “Neruda” looks like a lost Technicolor classic, rich with color. Larraín’s preferred palette is pinkish blue, inviting us, as it were, to view 1940s Chile through rose-colored glasses. Many scenes take place at night, with evocative shadows framing Peluchonneau like a noir hero. With his sharp suit and fedora, Bernal cuts a handsome silhouette, which serves only to contrast him with the portly Neruda. This heightens the film’s artificiality: Sometimes Larraín films one conversation from multiple vantage points and locations. It’s strange and jarring, although the point is straightforward, reminding us that we are watching a movie and that none of it is real. Larraín could have taken the noir conceit further, even putting the film into thriller territory. Instead, “Neruda” opts for a tone of stately elegy.
Larraín’s contrivances have a deeper purpose than having fun. Although many of the characters were real people, including a cameo by Emilio Gutiérrez Caba as Pablo Picasso, Peluchonneau is completely fictional. This frames our perception of the film’s subject through the policeman’s eyes, giving him an aura that would be missing from a more straightforward biography. Neruda seems dangerous to us because he’s dangerous to Peluchonneau. There is a terrific, long sequence in which Neruda interacts with a transgender singer who adores him. Later, when Peluchonneau questions the singer, with an attitude of careful attention, Bernal hints that his character’s otherwise single-minded pursuit is tempered by a kind of affection for his quarry.
But poets are romantic only in the abstract. In real life they’re just people. Gnecco plays Neruda like an ill-behaved drunk who believes a bit too much in his own legend — something that the filmmakers are only too aware of as they create a space in which that legend can blossom.
“Neruda” is a dense film, with Bernal providing a hard-boiled voice-over that veers at times into lyricism. Once we understand Neruda’s position — thanks to an overwhelming but necessary prologue on the minutiae of Chilean politics — the movie has the freedom to nurture its subject like a folk hero. This is not a film about Neruda’s life or controversial death. This is a film for folks who are unfamiliar with the writing of Neruda, or maybe even skeptical about poetry in general. They may not cherish every word of the poet’s most heartbreaking lines, but they’ll understand the man who wrote them a little better those who already do.
R. At area theaters. Contains violence. In Spanish and French with subtitles. 108 minutes.