Pablo Larraín rethinks the biopic with Neruda

Following the Natalie Portman-starring Jackie, mercurial Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín has another left-field take on a national icon with Neruda

Feature by Josh Slater-Williams | 03 Apr 2017

When it comes to productivity, there aren't many high-profile directors who come close to Japan’s Takashi Miike (who has made approximately five features since you started reading this sentence), but there are a select few who can be relied upon to give us at least one feature film a year, sometimes even two. Michael Winterbottom is good for this, while Steven Soderbergh was very good for it before his self-imposed (and now broken) retirement from film directing.

With three films in the last two years, Chilean director Pablo Larraín is making a case to join that select group. It’s also worked out that his two most recent films serve to complement each other very well (the odd duck is Catholic Church drama The Club). Larraín has just been through the awards season madness with his English-language debut, Jackie Kennedy biopic Jackie (which picked up three Oscar nominations), and his third film of the trio, Neruda (which hit festivals before Jackie), is a similarly slippery portrait of a political figure, in this case revolutionary Chilean poet-diplomat and politician Pablo Neruda.

It would seem, though, that Larraín isn’t much of a fan of the ‘biopic’ label, nor is he especially enthusiastic about the genre at large. “I usually don’t enjoy biopics very much,” he tells The Skinny over the phone. “I think it’s a very complicated genre. There are some filmmakers that have done great, great [biopics], but I think they’re usually very original takes. People like Maurice Pialat or Miloš Forman, they’ve made wonderful movies about people, but I wouldn’t call them biopics. I think they’re just trying to approach with a specific sensibility into those lives.”

Jackie broke from the conventions of political portraiture with its fractured narrative structure and by honing in on a specific period in Jackie O’s life. Neruda also focuses on one particular period of its subject’s life, but the twist here is Larraín position his subject's story against a fictional conceit. Luis Gnecco plays Neruda coping with fugitive life after the Chilean government outlawed Communism in 1948, but hot on his tail is Gael García Bernal as a hardboiled inspector who wouldn’t seem out of place in a Hollywood detective film from the same period.

Regarding artistic references for the unique style, Larraín cites various factors: “Well, we started with a more conventional approach and it was tricky, and I wasn’t completely sure about making the film. And then me and Guillermo Calderón, who did a wonderful job writing the script, came up with the story and the idea to make the story from the perspective of the cop. That opens the doors to something very interesting and strong, which is making like a fiction within a fiction. And we keep saying that this film is not necessarily about Neruda, it’s more about the ‘Nerudan’ world. And there’s so much there... it’s interesting, it’s like going to Neruda’s house and playing with his toys.

“It’s a movie about movies, somehow,” he continues. “It’s a movie about the noir cinema that was made in the 40s and 50s; a chase movie; it’s a cop movie; it’s cat and mouse; and a sort of road trip with elements from black comedy. And, also, ultimately, it’s a western. So it’s just a combination of all these layers and elements that we just feel are fascinating.”

While its narrative is eccentric, there’s also much playfulness to be found in Neruda’s visual construction. We ask whether the rhythmic cinematography, with a near-constantly moving camera, is at all inspired by the flow of Pablo Neruda’s poetry.

“Yeah, absolutely. Neruda’s poetry has many, many elements and layers, and, of course, one of them is the rhythm,” he says. “And so we tried to deliver that rhythm into the screen and into the way the movie was shot. If you read Neruda’s poetry you will find there’s a specific tone and speed and pace, and we tried to create a reflection of that in the film. That’s why the camera is moving all the time, and it’s just sort of looking and tracking the main characters wherever they are. It’s a movie where people [are] moving from one side to another, from one idea to another, from one life to another. And all that is in the essence of the filmmaking, and that’s what we intended to do.”

Also of note are the purple and blue hues of the film’s colour scheme, which is reminiscent of the blue tones incorporated in The Club. “It comes from the colour palette of the period that we found,” explains Larraín. “And we were looking for a very distinctive look that would bring personality to the film. And also there’s a very simple connection with Neruda’s poetry and life. He lived many, many years of his life in front of the sea and wrote about the sea and the sky and the blue. Blue was an important colour in his work. And he was also a communist, and that’s red. And if you combined blue and red, you would get purple.”

Not to get into third act spoilers regarding the film’s fictional flourishes, but the trickiness of its stylistic device makes one wonder whether the final product resembles what Larraín originally conceived. “Well, we always were trying to have as much material as possible, and different ideas,” he says on this topic. “And working with Hervé Schneid was a real pleasure, he’s such an incredible editor, and we had a chance to reshape the story in a very flexible way.

“I never know how the movie’s gonna end. It’s always a process; it’s always part of the undetermined place where you’re going. And there’s a thrill there in trying to place where the movie will settle. I didn’t know exactly [that] the movie was going to end like this, but we were able to sort of try to grab as many elements possible, and then when you bring them to the kitchen and cook the final dish, you offer it to the audience.”

As our call wraps up, we ask Larraín what draws him to actor Gael García Bernal, who, following 2012’s No, has been his leading man in two features to date: “First of all, he’s a great friend and one of the greatest actors in our language. And he’s someone who has an incredible amount of mystery, and I think that’s essential to cinema. And he is someone who is able to bring to the screen something that is very particular to him.” With his unusual, personal spin on bringing the art and life of Pablo Neruda to the screen, Larraín’s last statement there could just as easily be applied to himself.

Neruda is released 7 Apr by Network Releasing

Follow Josh Slater-Williams on Twitter at @jslaterwilliams