Picture this: A communist Chilean poet who served as a senator and diplomat and later went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Now picture something else: Communist Chilean Poet: The Movie.
It was certainly not the sort of project Chilean director Pablo Larraín had in mind when his brother and producer, Juan de Dios Larraín, nudged him, roughly a decade ago, to make a film about 20th century literary icon Pablo Neruda.
Pablo Larraín rolls his eyes recalling the moment. “A movie with everybody talking loud and serious,” he says with a groan. “It could have been that.”
Except Larraín isn’t the type of director who seems capable of churning out an earnest biopic.
“Neruda,” which opens in Los Angeles Friday, is funny and ribald — a police caper disguised as a biopic that offers an engaging meditation on one man’s commitment to political ideals as well as the very nature of movie-making.
In his films, there is no redemption. He looks at life, at his characters, without judgment.
In the lead, a limber Gael Garcia Bernal channels his finest film noir police inspector, chasing down the poet, who is on the lam amid a communist crackdown.
“I’ve told people that if you are seeing this film to get to know Neruda, then you may have a problem,” says Chilean actor Luis Gnecco, who plays the title role. “It’s a film about fiction, how fiction can save you, how fiction can shape things.”
Spanish director Pedro Almodovar hailed it as “the best movie I have seen this year” at the New York Film Festival this fall. On Monday, it was nominated for a Golden Globe in the foreign language film category. (“Neruda” was shot in Spanish.) Last week, it raked in four prizes at the Fenix Awards in Mexico City, which honors films from Ibero American countries. The picture is also Chile’s submission for the foreign language Oscar.
“Neruda” lands amid a shower of critical acclaim for Larraín’s other, more high-profile film, “Jackie,” which also hit theaters this month. It stars Natalie Portman, who received a Golden Globe nomination on Monday for her portrayal of a shell-shocked Jacqueline Kennedy in the days following the president’s assassination.
The back-to-back releases signify that Larraín could become the rare director to have two films in two languages vying for Oscars in February — an impressive feat for an artist who is barely 40 and who, until the release of “Jackie,” had never made a movie in English. He is doing this with a pair of films that unravel the psyches of two towering historical figures of the 20th century.
“Jackie” takes an event that is etched into the collective American unconscious and makes it visceral. “Neruda” transforms an icon of Latin American letters, a poet who is practically a popular saint in Chile, into a flesh-and-blood human being full of frailties and charisma.
“If you go in thinking you are trying to make a movie about Pablo Neruda, it can be very frightening,” the director says as he fiddles with a cup of tea at a Century City hotel. “But once you realize he can never be yours, you can be free. You realize that this is a man, who is sweating, who has desires, who wants to change things and who is in complete and constant crisis.”
Director Darren Aronofsky, who served as a producer on “Jackie” and tapped Larraín to direct the film, first became enthralled by the Chilean filmmaker’s work after seeing his 2015 feature, “El Club,” at the Berlinale in Germany.
A brooding film about a remote home inhabited by law-breaking priests, “El Club” is the dark, Latin American antithesis to “Spotlight.” Where “Spotlight” was about the heroics of a team of reporters uncovering the abuses of the Catholic Church, “El Club” was a devastating parable about preserving the status quo.
“It’s unfamiliar characters who are, on the surface, so unlikable, yet you are completely sucked into their world and you empathize with them,” says Aronofsky of the morally corrupt individuals in “El Club.” “That’s an incredibly difficult thing to pull off.”
In the new films, Larraín’s powers of storytelling remain equally astute.
If you are seeing this film to get to know Neruda, then you may have a problem.
Like “Jackie,” “Neruda” does away with the clunky cradle-to-grave biopic format and focuses instead on a key period in the late poet’s life: A roughly yearlong stretch in the late 1940s when Neruda was forced into hiding after communism was outlawed in Chile. It was an episode so formative that the poet recounted it at length in his Nobel acceptance speech in 1971.
But while “Jackie” is about contending with the trauma of death, “Neruda” is about the joy of creation — and of living. It contains impassioned poetic recitations, bohemian revelry and some bawdy visits to a bordello. The film opens with Neruda and a group of fellow parliamentarians engaged in fierce political oratory as they inhale drinks and take whizzes inside the congressional john.
While Larraín is hailed as an important filmmaker in his native country, this warts-and-all portrayal hasn’t necessarily endeared him to every sector of the Chilean public.
“Everything you could possibly say about the film, it’s been said,” he notes of the critical reaction in Chile. “From conspiracy theories to people who are fascinated with the film. It creates many things, but it doesn’t create indifference.”
Like any overnight success, Larraín has been hard at work for a long time.
The director, slim and sleepy-eyed, first came to international attention in 2008 when his second feature, “Tony Manero,” which he co-wrote, was screened during the Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival.
The film tells the story of Raúl Peralta (played by Chilean actor Alfredo Castro), a working-class sadsack who is obsessed with John Travolta’s character in “Saturday Night Fever.”
Set in the late 1970s, with the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet as backdrop, the narrative grows increasingly savage as the story plays out. Peralta’s obsession comes with a body count. And the repressive forces of the dictatorship, a distant reality at the beginning of the movie, reveal themselves with greater force by the end.
“I wanted to express myself with a voice that would leave a stain,” says Larraín of the film. “If ‘Neruda’ is like a broken mirror that provides multiple reflections of one man, with this one I wanted to have a dirty mirror. I wanted to look at a mirror that had a very distorted view.”
Castro, a veteran stage actor who regularly appears in Larraín’s films, says the director is drawn to material that deals with impunity, often in narratives that feature ambivalent outcomes.
“Chilean society is very Catholic, very much formed by the Christian idea of redemption,” Castro says via telephone from Mexico City. “Chilean art plays very much with the idea that the prostitute becomes a saint, that the thief becomes a good man.”
“That is what is so good about Pablo,” he adds. “In his films, there is no redemption. And he looks at life, at his characters, without judgment.”
Larraín has a sympathetic view of the lonely, depraved individuals who often find their way into his work.
“I have compassion for my characters,” he says. “My films are love stories.”
“Tony Manero” was followed by two other movies — part of a trilogy — that also used Chile’s dictatorship as a setting in which to explore the lives of individuals in extreme conditions. In “Post Mortem,” from 2010, a Santiago morgue attendant finds himself in the crosshairs of history when the military stages a coup. “No,” released two years later, starred Garcia Bernal as an ad executive who works for the opposition during the plebiscite of 1988 — a referendum to decide whether Pinochet would remain in office. (He did not.)
“No” blends historic Chilean television footage from the late-1980s into the narrative of Garcia Bernal’s invented ad man. Larraín shot the movie using an old U-matic camera so that his film would match the flat texture of 1980s video — making the real and the unreal into one.
He employs a similar device in “Jackie,” inserting Portman into the black-and-white broadcast recordings of the first lady’s 1962 televised tour of the White House.
But his history isn’t strictly by the books.
Larraín imagines the human moments that elude the historical record — such as the conversation in the bathroom that opens “Neruda.” And in “Jackie,” he envisions the agony of the 6½-minute dash that the presidential caravan made to the hospital after John F. Kennedy was shot.
“Those 6½ minutes have never been expressed in any type of movies,” Larraín says. “There are no photographs, just a few testimonies. But what happened in that car, those 6½ minutes, was a century of life.”
In the film, Larraín cuts from the first lady’s point of view — speeding into the concrete forms of a nearby freeway underpass — to wider shots that show her cradling her dying husband.
“She must think, ‘What is going on here? Where did that bullet come from? Will I talk to him again? Is he dying?’” he says. “And finally, the most pure and essential thing of every human, of ‘I am just so alone.’ And that aloneness is something we all understand and share.”
Larraín’s productions are often a close-knit affair. His movies are released by his production company, Fabula, which he runs with Juan de Dios. Castro has appeared in all of Larraín’s films except “Jackie.” Gnecco is in several key projects.
The actors describe an atmosphere on set of profound trust on — not insignificant, because Larraín is known for asking performers to improvise new ideas.
“If you read the shooting script for ‘Neruda’ and you watch the film, it’s another story,” says Juan de Dios. “He changes every movie all the time.”
“We get together, we read, we get to know the story,” says Gnecco. “But none of that is definitive. So you learn your scene. But then you get there to the set — and that is when the work begins.”
Castro says that the requests are never impulsive. Larraín is simply committed to rounding out a character, enriching a plot, furthering a story.
On one level, the story of “Neruda” is of a hapless policeman trying to capture a sybaritic poet, but it is also a story of that poet in the process of his own myth-making — a story about a story.
“It’s an existential western,” says Larraín of his creation.
Whatever it is, it’s never just one thing.
MPAA rating: R
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Royal Theatre, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd. West L.A., (310) 478-3836.
Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.