In 1947, Pablo Neruda was charged with treason in his native Chile and became a fugitive, eventually making an equine escape through the Andes. This is the period of the great poet's life through which Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín decided to explore this national hero in Neruda, which stars Luis Gnecco in the title role. It makes for an interesting double-bill with his English-language debut, Jackie. "It was actually my brother's idea...it was just so hard for me to even think about it," he reveals of Neruda during a trip to London amidst the pre-Oscar furore for the US drama. "You may understand how heavy and strong is Neruda's figure in our country."
Although, always intending to concentrate on this specific moment in Neruda's life, this was initially a far more conventional take on the biopic genre. "It took a couple of years to get it done and at some point Guillermo [Calderón, the screenwriter] came back with the idea that we should look at this from the cop's perspective (Gael Garcia Bernal). That's how I was more relaxed and free and thought that it was actually possible to make a movie about Neruda because - even though this might sound contradictory - I don't think this movie is necessarily about Neruda. It's about what we called the Nerudaen world; his cosmos, his life, his complexity."
Part of that complexity comes in the form of attempting to somehow translate a non-cinematic artist and his life onto the screen. Larraín explains: "Cinema and poetry are very connected but at the same time, they're very far. I think it's very tricky to bring poetry to the screen - I mean, we literally avoided it - because it just sounds like somebody reading poetry and you're better to read it yourself. One of the ways we found was to read his poetry and find a specific rhythm, and that rhythm helped us to find a way to shoot the film. That is why the camera is in constant motion, it's moving from one side to another, and one direction to another. That's important, I think, because we have absorbed his poetry and his work and we then sweat this film."
One of the film's most striking aspect is its propensity to switch locations in the middle of a scene without any of the characters noticing. "We all know how the space will affect the psychological environment, and the image, but when you change the background after every - in the same - scene, and you change the background and they just keep talking and they don't acknowledge that it's not the same background, then the space becomes a more psychological tool, not just a narrative tool, and that psychological tool could bring you into unexpected places."
The production took the crew to all manner of places, shooting in over 70 locations across Chile, not least in the snow-covered Andes where they had to struggle through adverse weather conditions just as their muse would have over 60 years earlier. "When Neruda got the Nobel Prize, 23 or 24 years after this movie takes place, he refers to multiple moments, but he talks extensively about this specific period of his life…and he says that when he was crossing the Andes he was helped by people who didn't know who he was and he learned the meaning of fraternity. Then, ultimately, he said that he doesn't know if he lived it, he dreamt it, or he wrote it. And when he said that, it was Neruda himself that opened the doors for us to play with this with respect, fascination and a lot of love, but to be joyful."
The most clear example of this playful spirit can be found in Bernal's detective, Prefect Oscar Peluchonneau. Like all great adversaries, he and Neruda exist in a vital struggle that sustains them both, and within the film, may just be the entire reason for Peluchonneau's existence. Bernal himself explained his own process: "It's difficult to say where or exactly how characters are constructed, you know? It's always like an amorphous thing like having a piece of plasticine. 'How do you begin?' Well, just by squishing it and then later it becomes something. There are many elements to the character, but the [silly pencil] moustache is super important, definitely. The moustache and that haircut. The moustache with that haircut. The haircut is exactly the haircut that many football players have right now, and they don't realise that they're having fascist haircuts, but it is. I couldn't believe it when I saw Messi playing in Berlin, and was just like 'Man, you look like a little Franco running around.'"
The narrative's clash between fascistic government and marauding artist, clearly struck a chord with the actor. "Fascism is most afraid of analogue thinking, and free thought. That's why poetry is so powerful, because it can mobilise the resources and energy in a system that tries to shut down a person's thoughts. It is not only be seen in prehistoric times, but nowadays, you know, we live that…We didn't mean it like that but sometime things come up that were maybe tapped into something that we were also thinking. It is incredible how, in those days, in every part of the world [although not the USA, Bernal points out with a wry smile 'they have shown their true colours'] poets, intellectuals, and people like that were part of the government, were members of the government. We need to regain that."
This is Bernal's second film with Larraín after No, the culmination of the director's Pinochet trilogy. "When we are shooting the film he just lets everything free and loose. There is a natural rapport now between us and I'm so lucky to have found - or he found me, I don't know - we found each other in this way, because I feel like he's a person I want to work all my life with." Neruda was supposed to be Larraín's next film after No but he waited for Bernal to be available, making The Club in the meantime. "Gael can be the kind of character where even if he is in front of the camera and the character is telling you what he thinks you would look at him and you wouldn't really know what is going on. We're good friends and I also think that he's a wonderful actor, but I would say that the level of mystery is what is essential to me, and, I guess, to cinema itself."
Pablo Larraín's Neruda is released in UK cinemas nationwide from this Friday (5 April).
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson