Neruda is not a typical biopic, but then again, Gael García Bernal is not a typical actor. A football fanatic and political activist, the Mexican star was recently named in TIME’s 100 Most Influential People. So far, he’s starred in films by Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro Iñárritu, Michel Gondry, Jon Stewart, Lukas Moodysson, Pedro Almodóvar and Werner Herzog. In TV, he’s the lead of Mozart in the Jungle, for which he won Best Actor at last year’s Golden Globes. To call him flexible would be an understatement – his past roles range from Che Guevara to Cristiano Ronaldo.
With Neruda, Bernal reunites with Pablo Larraín, the Chilean director behind 2012’s Oscar-nominated No and the recently released Jackie. “He’s a person I want to work with all my life,” Bernal says of Larraín. “He makes films that are films.” That’s certainly the case with Neruda, a highly surreal, unconventional portrait of poet Pablo Neruda. It’s a slice of history – Chile during the Cold War in 1948 – and yet it’s a fantastical noir, introducing a detective realising he’s trapped in someone else’s fiction.
In No, Bernal was a ramshackle skateboarding advertiser working on the campaign to end Pinochet’s dictatorship. So it’s quite a switch in Neruda for Bernal to slip into Oscar Peluchonneau, a restrained, right-wing investigator on the hunt for Neruda (Luis Gnecco).
The first thing you notice about Oscar is a distinctive moustache and haircut combo. “It’s exactly the haircut that many football players have right now,” Bernal explains. “And they don’t realise that they have a fascist haircut. I couldn’t believe it when I saw Messi playing in the final of the Champion’s League. They were playing in Berlin at the Olympiastadion, and you just go, ‘Man, you look like a little Franco.’”
At the centre of Neruda is an entanglement between poetry and fascism. Within the tragedy, Bernal says, is comedy. “It’s like trying to shut down Monty Python. It’s trying to shut down a person thinking, and the person’s saying, ‘I’m just going to keep on thinking.’”
Neruda, a senator in congress, is impeached by the President for a vocal allegiance to the Communist Party, which in turn kicks off a cat-and-mouse struggle. Sort of. Gradually seduced by Neruda’s writing, Oscar starts to doubt his physical existence. Given the meta layers involved, did Bernal have difficulty slotting into Oscar’s mind-set? “There are many elements of this policeman that are like film noir,” the actor says. “He’s a bastard son of a prostitute. All these elements add up to the construction of the character. It’s almost an amorphous thing. It’s like having a piece of plasticine. How did I become it? Just by squishing it.”
It’s worth noting the interview took place in November, mere days after Donald Trump’s election victory. We’re not supposed to talk politics, but there’s no denying a period film set in 1948 suddenly feels relevant. “The United States have shown their true colours,” Bernal says. “They’ve tried to put themselves as the good guys of their movies, and they’re not – they’re a bunch of racists. Let’s be open about it.”
With that in mind, it’s posed to Bernal that art – including films like Neruda – will become even more crucial. Oscar, after all, is a fascist who’s terrified of poetry. But why? “There is a relationship,” he believes. “They’re exact opposites. Fascists are afraid of analogue thinking and free thought. That’s why poetry is so powerful.” He hopes the film’s release will have a positive effect. “This is a moment that we need poetry – to describe and also obtain new questions for the very difficult answers we need to face. Fascism doesn’t do that. Fascism is like a shaman saying, ‘I will fix it. I know the answers.’”
Interestingly, Neruda himself is depicted as a hypocritical hedonist – a literal champagne social socialist who guzzles alcohol with prostitutes every night. His wife, Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), just has to accept him as someone who “thinks about naked women and detectives hunting him”. So Neruda, a crime-fiction fan, decides to toy with Oscar; he sends him literature to rewire his thoughts.
“This man, who I play, should have been the natural recipient of Neruda’s poetry,” Bernal says. “He’s a marginalised person of society who chose the bleak, short-lived, implosive pathway of fascism, instead of the open, much more expansive, spacious, flexible and creative aspect of socialism.”
Looking through Bernal’s past films, such as Babel and Rosewater, there’s often a political edge to his chosen projects. Even Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mama también, in which he plays one of two sex-obsessed teens eager to lose their virginity, has sly social commentary on Mexico’s economic woes. Neruda, though, is more universal – it has an artist involved with the government. This was more common post-war and in the 20th century, Bernal says, listing George Bernard Shaw as an English example. “You can’t be tapping this propaganda appeal, which is: ‘I know nothing. I am not a politician – therefore vote for me.’ No. We need more illustrative people in power.”
Regardless of whether you side with the left or right, Neruda is a gorgeous, daring work of art. The camera is always moving, diving through shadows, and, through playful editing, locations will regularly shift within conversations. Its climactic set-piece, a foot chase in the Andes, sends Oscar into the snow with a simple existential plea: “I hope I’m not a supporting character.” His wish is granted.