Neruda (15) ★★★☆☆

CHILEAN director Pablo Larraín follows up his masterful, unorthodox and Oscar-nominated biopic Jackie with this irreverent and politically charged exploration of the life of Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) who became a fugitive of the state after joining the Communist Party in the 1940s.

This was a complex time for Chile and its people. In part to reflect the tragic absurdity of it, Larrain chooses to paint things in quirky, cartoonish strokes as a sly, meta hard-boiled noir.

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Therein Neruda is relentlessly pursued in exile by Detective Oscar Peluchonneau (Larraín regular Gael Garcia Bernal), a man who may be sharply dressed enough for the job but constantly finds himself cluelessly and comically one step behind his man.

Neruda is not a film to rest easily as being one thing or another, keeping the audience firmly on their toes, but that mishmash of tones is both its strength and weakness. Sometimes it feels fresh and alive, playfully prodding at the audience’s expectations of what both a biopic and a detective story should be. Other times it’s jarring and disjointed.

Just as he engages with the political ramifications of Neruda’s new chosen affiliation, Larraín seems equally interested in the nature of the two men themselves who are perpetually engaged in this game of cat and mouse – indeed, who is the cat and who is the mouse?

Neruda is the one on the run but leaves playful clues for his pursuer, as if he wants to be caught, while Peluchonneau seems wilfully unable to capitalise on those clues, almost as if he likes the poetry of the chase for its own sake.

Larraín’s distinctive approach keeps the audience at a distance, pushing any real emotion to the side in favour of something light on its toes and stylistically mannered. Overtly artificial-looking rear projection and other surreal visual flights of fancy give the unrelenting political chase a strange quality that’s hard to pin down.

That mystified feeling of not quite being able to grasp all of the quirks, details and tonal intentions feels entirely on purpose by Larrain and screenwriter Guillermo Calderón. Their curious imagined version of a beloved Chilean figure in a real, politically contrived time and place is an experience worth having. Just don’t expect every answer to emerge from its idiosyncratic shadows.