For 107 minutes on the Smith Rafael Film Center‘s screen for the 39th Mill Valley Film Festival Monday evening, actor Gael Garcia Bernal delivered a nuanced, oft-hilarious performance as Oscar Peluchonneau, a “half moron, half idiot” detective of dubious origins on the hunt for Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in director Pablo Larrain‘s new film, Neruda.

Bernal bookended the film screening with visits to the Rafael’s stage, exuding charm, intellect and a sense of humor that delighted the packed house. Larrain, whose other new film, Jackie, starring Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in the days after her husband’s assassination, prefers to call those films “anti-biopics.” In doing so, Bernal says Larrain relies on a saying from Subcomandante Marcos, the nom de guerre of the leader of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation during the Chiapas conflict in Mexico: “We come here to bring a problem and to invite you to carry on with it.” 

“This film is not necessarily about Neruda,” Bernal told MVFF Founder/Director Mark Fishkin in a Q&A after the screening. “Moreso, it’s ‘Nerudean.’ You feel his language and you see and hear the universe of Neruda himself. This is a man whose poems filled stadiums. It’s as if the story was already in our blood.”

Neruda focuses on the late 1940s political exile of the poet and Chilean Community Party Senator, who lived in hiding before fleeing first to Argentina and then to France. As the dim detective who sees his assignment to track down Neruda as a chance to make his mark in the world, Bernal’s character is instead unwound by the chase, with Neruda leaving behind signed crime novels at each of his hiding spots. Peluchonneau is increasingly revealed to be a character of Neruda’s creation – “a noble enemy.”

More than anything, Bernal said, Neruda is about the power of the poet’s words and poetry overall, with a droll-yet-soulful tone established by Larrain and screenwriter Guillermo Calderon that leans heavily on both “love poems and the anger poems” of Pablo Neruda, Bernal said.

“In exile, Neruda gave the people the words of their nightmares,” Bernal said. “We cannot diminish the power of poetry in politics.”

“Poets inspire us to have many lives within one life,” he added. “Poetry is the triumph of the analog over the rational – it is the music that triumphs over any rational explanation. Poets defend the ambiguity of the human condition, and this film is a triumph of poetry in a way.”

Fishkin concluded the evening by presenting the 37-year-old Bernal with the MVFF Award to honor “his transformational performance” and his already-illustrious career, including acclaimed performances in Amores Perros, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Rosewater, The Motorcycle Diaries and, most recently, his Golden Globe Award-winning turn as symphony conductor Rodrigo De Souza in the Amazone show Mozart in the Jungle:

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