“I don’t smoke,” Jackie Kennedy whispers to the journalist writing a profile on her as she exhales a cool puff of smoke in Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie.” Larraín’s English-language debut examined Jackie Kennedy as both woman and image in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination. Her words here are an assertion of power, an attempt to control the story that will be crafted and the memory that will be perpetuated. Along with Jackie herself, Larraín’s film meditates on the methods by which history is made, by which men and women of flesh and blood become figures of paper and ink.
“Neruda,” Larraín’s feature about the Chilean poet and politician (Luis Gnecco, “Narcos”) is an unconventional biopic of an altogether different nature. And once again the focus is on the relationship between history and myth. It begins in 1948, as Chilean democracy descends into dictatorship and the conservative government cracks down on its communist opposition. Neruda is, of course, the most famous of Chile’s communists and the party’s most prominent figure in the Senate. Faced with jail, exile or hiding, he chooses the latter and leaves his upper-class life — far away, despite his rhetoric, from the trials of the workers — which consists of poetry during the day and parties at night.
In flight from the government police, Neruda strides across Chile like a Colossus, and the detective Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal, “Mozart in the Jungle”) scurries after him, like a mouse at his feet. Peluchonneau narrates the action of the film, frequently castigating Neruda for his bourgeois excesses yet admiring his poetic gifts. The chase covers over a year, during which Neruda writes his epic poem “Canto General,” the early drafts of which are clandestinely distributed throughout the world.
Whereas Jackie is the center of her film’s universe, Neruda shares the spotlight with Peluchonneau. Indeed, the tension between the two provides all of the drama. At every hiding spot, Neruda leaves a potboiler detective novel for Peluchonneau to pick up, at once teasing him and encouraging his hunt. The investigator seems to be a character plucked out of one of these books, a man hapless and delusional, who stakes professional glory on a case that he hasn’t the skill to complete.
The film is less a rumination on Neruda’s place in Chilean history than a political thriller that prods and ironizes his aggrandization by both himself and others. As the film goes on, Peluchonneau realizes that he will not capture Neruda but mythologize him, that he is an invention made for this very purpose. As Neruda’s wife Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán, “Motorcycle Diaries”) tells him, he is just a supporting character in the life of the great poet.
Yet the film is never this simple. Larraín’s Neruda is hardly a gilded monument. He is, without a doubt, a man: Impetuous, loving, charming, arrogant, stubborn. He has no reservations about drinking or adultery, spending a not insignificant amount of time, even in hiding, at a brothel. He is tender and cruel, self-aggrandizing and a man of the people. He’s packed with contradictions.
Eventually, after months of running, Neruda and Peluchonneau meet in the southern Andes. Peluchonneau lies dying, after being hit in the head with a large tree branch by the employees of the landowner who housed Neruda for a night. His blood glazes the bright snow. The infamous man meets the forgotten. And the film seems to wonder: Who has made who?
Larraín’s film doesn’t have any easy answers. Rather than explain the meaning of Neruda’s legacy, it prods the complexities of how history is created and proliferated, and the result is, once again, a film as strange and compelling as its subject.