Aspen Film Academy Screenings: Chilean filmmakers craft an anti-biopic in ‘Neruda’

"Neruda" plays Friday at 3 p.m. at Aspen Film's Academy Screenings in the Wheeler Opera House.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘Neruda’ at Academy Screenings

Where: Wheeler Opera House

When: Friday, Dec. 30, 3 p.m.

How much: $20/general admission; $15/Aspen Film members

Tickets: Wheeler box office;

A straightforward biopic could not contain Pablo Neruda.

The filmmaking brothers Pablo and Juan de Dios Larrain realized this early on in their eight-year creative journey trying to portray the Chilean poet, politician, Nobel laureate and legend on the big screen. So the Larrains have made what they call an “anti-biopic” in “Neruda.”

Their film, which plays today at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings, focuses on the late 1940s, when Neruda was ousted from the Chilean Senate for his Communist affiliation, made an enemy of the state and forced into hiding. It features Luis Gnecco as a wistful Neruda and Gael Garcia Bernal as Peluchonneau, a fictional detective on his trail.

“What moment to choose? Which to tell? It was very hard,” Juan de Dios Larrain, the producer to his director brother’s films, said in a recent phone interview. “Neruda was a politician, he was a diplomat, a poet of course, a lover and he enjoyed food and wine and loved to travel. So how were we going to face this?”

The breakthrough moment came when the Larrain brothers read Neruda’s 1971 Nobel Prize lecture. Neruda spoke about his time on the lam as a fugitive from the government he’d long served, but painted it in fantastical terms as the stuff of legend. That time and tone, they decided, was the key to their portrait of Neruda.

“We realized that was the right moment and the right period to explore, to understand the movie out of that moment in his life,” Larrain explained.

Their “Neruda” is a self-reflexive and, yes, poetic piece of filmmaking — less about the historical events and more about the symbolic value of storytelling. It’s narrated by the detective, who is torn between respect and disdain for Neruda and who often contemplates whether he will be a supporting character or the protagonist in this story.

It plays out in the film noir tradition, with Neruda and Peluchonneau playing a cat-and-mouse game across Chile and into the Andes.

Through the detective’s eyes, Neruda is, at times, a swashbuckling rogue who leaves novels in his wake like a trail of breadcrumbs. At other times he’s sad and self-indulgent, wandering from party to party reciting, “Tonight I can write the saddest lines …” like a party trick. Yet he’s also a hero, inspiring the nation from exile with the publication of his “Canto General.” The film doesn’t try to humanize Neruda, it instead explores the idea of Neruda.

It has a highly stylized visual approach to match, using rear projection during driving scenes that nod and wink at its playful noir spin. It’s an arch and unconventional romp for film noir fans, Neruda devotees and anybody willing to abandon themselves to a different kind of biopic.

Screenwriter Guillermo Calderon pitched the Larrains on the idea of telling the story from a secondary character’s point of view, a bumbling by-the-book detective in a pencil-thin mustache.

“When Guillermo brought the idea we said, ‘We got it!’” Larrain said. “We had the period of time, we had the story and then we found the point of view.”

As a Chilean, Larrain had long wanted to make a movie about Neruda. He and his brother started working on what would become “Neruda” in 2008.

“It just took so much time to understand the point of view,” Larrain said.

In the years since, they’ve become globally renowned filmmakers for movies that wrestle with their country’s culture and tumultuous political history from “Post Mortem” (2010) to “No” (2012) and “The Club” (2013). Tackling their nation’s most iconic figure seems like a capstone to their Chilean movies. “Neruda” also is landing in American theaters simultaneously with “Jackie,” their acclaimed Jackie Kennedy portrait, which is their first English language film.

Riding two films through the brouhaha of awards season, the Larrain brothers haven’t made a decision on what they’ll do next. Whatever it is, the world will be watching.

“You have opportunities and you have to make decisions,” said Larrain, “but you have to keep your eyes open and make sure you step in the right car.”