"Art is a lie that tells a truth," Pablo Picasso once said. The aphorism animates Pablo Larraín's canny and vigorous Neruda, a sidelong biopic of the preeminent Chilean poet and politician, featuring a brilliant Luis Gnecco in the title role, that's equal parts fact and fiction. Born in Santiago in 1976, Larraín takes an oblique approach to his subject, one of his country's most exalted heroes -- a strategy that renders the past always labile and dynamic, never static and turgid.
Larraín narrows the scope of his subject's life to 1948, the year that Neruda, then a senator representing Chile's Communist party, was forced into hiding after President Gabriel González Videla (regular Larraín collaborator Alfredo Castro) outlawed communism and called for the writer-statesman's arrest. The historical record, however, is embellished by a wholly fabricated character: Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal, the star of No), both an officious police officer tasked with ensnaring Neruda and the film's unreliable first-person narrator.
Referents and identities are always slightly unfixed in Neruda, a film that reaches dizzying, exhilarating velocity by flouting the conventions of its hidebound genre. Peluchonneau, we soon discover, is a character doubly imagined: not only by Larraín and screenwriter Guillermo Calderón but also by the Neruda that they have concocted.
A chronicle of a towering 20th-century author, a detective story and a metafiction, Neruda consistently calls attention to its own artificiality; the rear projection in scenes of Peluchonneau driving in pursuit of his quarry gives Larraín's project a Hitchcockian aura. Neruda forgoes slavish re-creation -- the kind of mimesis that sinks Larraín's recently released, baffling biohazard Jackie -- for a more audacious consideration of language, literature and iconicity.