Omnipresent Poet: How Pablo Larraín Captured the Essence of Neruda Without Simplifying His Humanity
Reconciling the flawed humanity of a person with their extraordinary deeds means accepting that both vice and virtue can coexist. Ditching the narrative shackles of biographical films that aims to encompass the entirety of a person’s life, even if that means just piecing together a sequence of significant events, Chilean auteur Pablo Larraín inventively designed an iridescent impression of his homeland’s most notable artist, Pablo Neruda, which captures his essence without simplifying his humanity. No stranger to revisiting Chile’s most scabrous historical passages through a fictional lens that neither condemns nor absolves, in Neruda Larraín presents the man as a masterful poet, lazy communist, seductive lover, arrogant fugitive, narcissistic beast and, above all, the author of his own myth. As Neruda (Luis Gnecco) hides from the government bent on imprisoning him, the one tasked with his apprehension is Oscar Peluchoneau (Gael García Bernal), a young officer hungry for validation. But just as Peluchoneau wants to use the poet as his ticket to being remembered in the annals of history, the poet needs him as much to become a martyr. Neruda knows an artist only truly dies when his name is no longer uttered, and this persecution ensures his status as a legend. Neruda was never meant to be just another biopic tracing the steps of a prodigy, but a vibrant allegory — not about a man, but about how he will be remembered. In our conversation with the director — whose other film on an icon, Jackie, is also out now — we discuss why realism is nonexistent in his work, the impossibility of categorizing Neruda, and why this is a cubist film.
Filmmaker: Clearly the Neruda in the film is a product of your perception of him and his work, but what sort of materials, if any, did you read or investigate to construct this version of Chile’s most renowned artist?
Pablo Larraín: There’s a lot on him. There are a ton of biographies. I read four, and then I read his own autobiography, I Confess That I Have Lived, but most of all, I read most of his work, specifically the one he was writing while he was escaping. You have to understand, I’m Chilean; Neruda is in the water, in the earth, in the trees. He is someone who is very important for us, not just because of what it means in terms of his poetry and his political activism. For me, he was someone who was able to describe our country and our culture in a way that nobody else has done. No historian, no journalist, no artist, nobody has been able to describe our society, our country, our food, our idiosyncrasy in that way, and he did it with poetry, so it’s really amazing. That’s why we like to say that this isn’t a biopic, it’s not a movie about Neruda. It’s a movie about the Neruda cosmos. It’s about a Neruda who was a great cook, who loved food, who loved wine, who loved women, who got in trouble as a diplomat. He was someone who went literally all over the world. Back them it wasn’t that easy to travel, but he kept travelling, and he kept getting stuff from all over. He was an incredible collector, who had three houses filled with objects from everywhere. He was a senator, he was a political leader, he could have been the president of Chile, and he was one of the greatest poets in our language, so he’s someone who is un-grabbable. You’re not going to be able to put him in a box. It’s impossible.
Filmmaker: In that sense, what sort of liberties did you take to make such a compelling film?
Larraín: A lot, because once you understand that you’re not going to be able to grab him, it gives you a lot of freedom to approach him through the arbitraries of fiction. I think it’s important to understand that you’re never really making a film about him. It’s about his universe, his cosmos. It’s like going to his house and playing with his toys.
Filmmaker: Does the humor come from his autobiography, or from anecdotes of people who knew who he was as a real person at a party perhaps, or was this also an invention?
Larraín: It comes from everywhere. It’s the tone that [screenwriter] Guillermo [Calderón] and I were chasing, and Guillermo did incredible work with the script, but it’s also because of the mixture of elements. I remember when we submitted the movie to Cannes, you have to fill out a form, and it includes: running time, sound, color, title, and then it says, “genre,” and somebody from my office said, “What do I put here? I said, ”Nothing,” and we couldn’t submit it, because a little red dot would show up, and it said we had to put something there. I didn’t want to do it, so I called the festival and I said, just make it blank, and they said ok. It has elements from noir cinema, it has elements of a cat-and-mouse chase thriller, it has elements from a road movie, sometimes it goes into a western, and it’s also a black comedy, so that’s the cocktail. It’s hard to describe. It’s like talking about music, or poetry. You have to read it, or listen to it.
Filmmaker: Do you feel like you’re traveling in time to different periods in Chilean history through your films? What does that mean for you as an artist looking at these events from afar?
Larraín: Yes, but it’s annoying, because you can’t just grab a camera and go outside and make something. You have to control everything. I’ve made seven movies and five of them are period movies. It’s exhausting. But I think it’s important to look at those days with the information that you have now. You can’t be naïve and pretend you don’t know what happened. We all know that happened after when this movie takes place, and you use that, you need to use that, because it’s important, it’s relevant. You can’t be naïve. You look at those days from the day that you’re making the movie, and I think it’s important to do that. I just don’t see myself making a period movie and pretending that we are there, and we don’t know what happened, and pretending that the characters are just going through that, and ignoring what we all know. At some point, it gets to be a historical analysis, and you are play with that, you have that information, so you use it. It’s hiding there, but it’s there.
Filmmaker: It’s all artifice.
Larraín: It is, and that’s my approach to cinema. I don’t think it’s realistic, at all. I admire people who are able to do realism in cinema — Mike Leigh for example, he’s great — but I can’t do that. For me, cinema is more related to old magicians, the illusionists. They would create something that’s live, with someone moving the rope and someone is moving the light, and the other one is flickering the smoke machine, and they create something that, if you think for a second, this is fake, there’s just a guy there on stage. But them, if you connect with the illusion, you will buy it, and even if you’re in a theatre and someone is doing something, it’s handcrafted, and I like that.
Filmmaker: The idea of knowing that it’s not real makes it more interesting, I feel.
Larraín: Once you connect with it, yes. But then it’s over, and the lights come on and you’re like, “Whoa, I was here.”
Filmmaker: Back in February, I talked with you about The Club, and I remember you told me that you felt most films look the same these days. How did you approach Neruda aesthetically?
Larraín: We shot on digital, and we used anamorphic lenses, but we filtered it a lot. With the help of production designer Estefania Larrain and Sergio Armstrong, the DP, we built this aesthetic that is in motion, not just because we are moving the camera, but also because we had 70 locations. We never spent more than two days in one place, so we were always moving and finding different light conditions, and try to capture them with a color palette, speed and rhythm that would ideally just belong to Neruda.
Filmmaker: In terms of the themes of the story, why do you find the idea of the hunter and the prey fascinating? One cannot transcend history without the other.
Larraín: What happened since we had a cop chasing the main character, which for sure this is not the first movie that does it, is that we needed Neruda to be writing his main book. A lot of experts say that’s the book that consolidated his body of work in order to get the Nobel Prize. He was writing that, he was escaping, he was building his own legend, and the other character is someone for whom the chase for Neruda is just an excuse to understand who he really is, and that existential trip. It’s apparently unrelated to Neruda, but at some point there’s a nemesis. We don’t want to spoil the movie, but it all comes to be one single idea bout life, fiction and love.
Filmmaker: Would you say that the final sequence, without revealing what it is, is surrealist?
Larraín: Yeah, you could say that, but I would also say it’s a movie that is very cubist. Picasso has a small role, but it’s a key role for us, because his work is so interesting. If you get close to his paintings, like “Guernica,” you would see that they are full of ideas, and then you step back, and all the figures in paintings would create one single idea, and I think about the movie like that. Also, it’s inspired by Neruda’s work, of course, and by Jorge Luis Borges, who had this idea of fictionalized fiction. So it was different sources, from the territory.
Filmmaker: Luis Gnecco embodies this figure marvelously. What kind of conversations or exchanges did you have with him to guide him into the Neruda you wanted?
Larraín: At the beginning, it was very frightening for him. He had to gain a lot of weight, but at some point, he just got it, and grabbed the character, and for me to have him, he’s such an incredible, wonderful actor. So it was fascinating to do it, and to stick to the script, which was great, but also to improvise a lot, and find new things here and there, and control the intensity levels, so I could push up when we had to and keep it down when we had to.
Filmmaker: There’s an element of performance in Neruda’s voice and in his actions, where does which come from?
Larraín: He’s someone who is dealing with his own character. Neruda was already very famous. He published his Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair when he was 19, so he was a star. When he was 44, he was the Mick Jagger of Latin America, even the world. It was him and Picasso, artists from the middle of the 20th century, they were stars. They were incredibly sexy and interesting and there was a lot of sensuality in their work, and they were very attracted to a lot of people. Maybe that made them have a character that they would play when they had to. You don’t know, when someone is conscious about their own legend, and have to deal with that.
Filmmaker: It seems like, back them, intelligence was sexier than image.
Larraín: Absolutely, because there was no visual information. There were only photos in the newspaper, if any, so ideas were stronger. There was a lot of sensuality, especially from a guy who was a poet.
Filmmaker: Regarding Gael, who’s basically a Latin American chameleon, and who worked with you before in No, what was different this time about working with him?
Larraín: Gael is an actor who has something that I admire so much. He’s a man that could tell you what he thinks and what he feels as the character, but then you look at him and something is there that you just don’t know, and that mystery is essential. That’s why he can play all of those roles and always be different, because there’s something that you’ll never get. To the audience that makes an impression, and that’s why he’s a major actor, because he has an incredible mystery to him, and he’s one of my great friends, he’s very close, so it was fascinating to have him play this cop who’s lost and trying to understand who he is, and doesn’t feel like a great cop because he’s not able to grab him, and then at some point he realizes he can’t grab him. He has so many layers.
Filmmaker: Did Peluchonneau come from parts of real people?
Larraín: Just the name; everything else is fictional.
Filmmaker: How did you construct the character on the page? What exactly was the function that you wanted him to have?
Larraín: We had the story of Neruda very clear, and then Guillermo was able to introduce this other character slowly into the film, up to the point that he had the point of view of the story. He is telling the story. That is where we found the movie. If you read Neruda’s speech when he got the Nobel Prize, he refers to this period of his life. You can read it online in Spanish, it’s great. He would say that he doesn’t remember if he lived it, wrote it or dreamt this period, and that gave us the key to create this crash of circumstances.
Filmmaker: What attracts you to important figures like Neruda and Jackie?
Larraín: These are people in incredible circumstances. I’ve made movies about people who are not important, most of them are movies about people who are unknown, and somehow connected to great moments in history. This time it was different. I thought that it meant something to make films with those people and those stories.