As a writer, Pablo Neruda refused to be defined by a single creative signature. His style was vast, his topics various – ranging from reflectively surreal reveries, to defiant political dictums. To some he was a threat, but for many he was a rousing nonconformist – a man who always refused to bow to convention.

This bold biopic from distinguished Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín channels that same free spirited nature with rabid zeal. In contrast to the director’s loose trilogy of films that chronicled the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, Neruda is a far friskier affair; one that forgoes pointed political discourse in favour of something more poetic.

Fear not though, for this expressive approach hasn’t diminished Larraín’s aptitude for making stingingly sarcastic swipes at the expense of his homeland’s parliamentary past; the film opening with a sequence that depicts Chile’s plush congressional chambers as being encircled with urinals. And it’s here that we first meet the poet and politician of the title – superbly played throughout as a fiercely intelligent if sometimes sententious individual by Luis Gnecco.

The year is 1948, and the ramifications of the Cold War have reached Chile. Having accused the government of betraying the Communist party, Senator Neruda finds himself swiftly impeached by president Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro). And, having failed to flee the country, he and his wife Delia (Mercedes Morán) are soon forced into hiding. Hot on their heels, however, is police prefect Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), an impassioned inspector who has been assigned by Videla with the task of arresting the fugitive as quickly as possible.

Bathing his film in a noirish sheen that’s scintillatingly evocative of classic Hollywood, Larraín confidently charts fresh terrain here; the light atmosphere, supplemented by a peppy score, giving the impression of a great cat-and-mouse caper. His pace is buoyant, Guillermo Calderón’s script laden with wit that all the cast, and in particular García Bernal – exuding a lively energy as Peluchonneau – tuck into with great gusto.

Intriguingly for a biopic, adhering the truth is never top of the director’s agenda: Larraín instead interested in treating the plot as a platform for exploring the relationship between art and its inspirations. In this reworking of Neruda’s narrative, the poet is moved to compose ‘Canto General’ – his highly regarded 10th book of poetry, first published in 1950 – as a response to his life as a felon.

Cue surrealist narration that hangs heavy over the second half, probing various philosophical ideas as the two men at its centre find themselves drawn ever closer to each other. Indeed, it isn’t long before Larraín gets so distracted by mentally illegible existential musings that it begins to impeach upon his abilities as a director, and by the time we enter into the third act, such a conceptually dense commentary only serves to push us away.

In parallel to Neruda’s journey within the film, Larraín uses his new surroundings as an opportunity to reinvent himself; a commendable and inspirational aim, but not one he quite manages to achieve.

Director: Pablo Larraín
Writer: Guillermo Calderón
Stars: Gael García Bernal, Antonia Zegers, Alfredo Castro
Runtime: 107 mins
Country: Argentina, Chile, Spain, France

Film Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

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