It's rare enough for a filmmaker in these fallen days to release two major films in one calendar year. It is virtually unprecedented in modern times for both of them to be outright masterpieces, like Pablo Larraín has gifted unto the world in 2016. And both of them coming from the almost invariably shitty genre of the biopic, no less! His mood-piece exploration of the mourning Jacqueline Kennedy, Jackie, was the first to hit U.S. theaters by two whole weeks, but the first of the films to premiere was Neruda, which first say the light of day at the 2016 Cannes Directors' Fortnight, and it's this earlier film that we'll be turning to now. It's a story involving the great Chilean poet and Communist senator (maybe not in that order) Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco), which is a distinctly different thing than being a story about Neruda, let alone being a biography of Neruda. I don't know that we quite have a word for what it is, exactly.

Here's the history: Neruda, already a literary icon and leader of the Chilean Left, got himself in trouble in January, 1948, denouncing President González Videla (Alfredo Castro) on the floor of Chilean senate after a major crackdown on striking miners and the outlawing of Communism. Neruda became a hunted man as a result. For most of the year, Neruda and his partner, Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán) were protected by the left-wing underground, as he composed and distributed portions of Canto general, his epic poem on impoverished, politically oppressed life in the Americas that was finally completed in Mexico in 1952. By the end of '48, Neruda was able to escape over the Andes into Argentina, spending the next several years as a political refugee.

The movie mostly relates the story of Neruda's very bad 1948, or as much of it as can be reasonably packed into 107 minutes. Already, it's as effective and smart as a traditional biopic is going to be: screenwriter Guillermo Calderón does wonderful work carving out one particular slice of Neruda's life and turning it into a single dramatic arc, while also including the usual "people love him in montage" gestures that insist upon the subject's considerable historical importance (I confess that as an English speaker, I've never actually read any of Neruda's poetry, and the film prefers to focus on his personality and politics rather than his writing). It's kind of the best of both worlds, focused enough to have a real honest-to-God plot and generic enough to legitimately celebrate its subject. But anyway, Neruda is not a traditional biopic. It is, in fact, one of the least traditional biopics that I have ever seen, though it hides that fact beneath apparently straightforward scene construction.

The thing is, Neruda isn't even necessarily the main character in Neruda: that honor, one could readily argue, instead goes to dogged policeman Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), the merciless & mirthless authoritarian who chases the poet from one end of Chile to the other. Here's an interesting fact about Peluchonneau: he didn't exist and has no specific historical analogue: Here's an even more interesting fact: he seems to be aware of his non-existence, and so are the other characters (there's even a line near the end which states this explicitly; the character expressing it might not mean it literally, but we're certainly welcome to take it that way). And now we start to get at why Neruda isn't just very good "for a biopic", but one of the very best biopics of the modern age, and among 2016's greatest contributions to cinema. It's isn't just the story of Neruda's escape from Chile - it is, in a very definite sense, the story about the story of Neruda's escape. Who the author of the story is, is up for debate: Calderón, placing history into a generic framework, decades later? Neruda himself, allowing his formidable literary mind to craft a narrative scenario around his own life as a means of mythologising himself, or perhaps just finding a familiar narrative framework to understand what's happening to him?

For one of the things we learn about the poet, or at least one of the things that the movie had decided to invent about him, is that he was a great fan of pulp detective fiction. And Peluchonneau isn't just an implacable cop: he's a proper hard-boiled detective, narrating the whole movie in crisp, choppy lines of tough-guy dialogue, with a bitter edge of unfunny irony that he surrounds himelf with. García Bernal (whose last great performance was in another of Larraīn's many films about Chilean political history, the wonderful No from 2012) is terrific, insofar as one can be "terrific" in a part with such tightly constrained requirements: all but completely unrecognisable behind a pencil mustache, the actor is a block of ice, barely flexing his facial muscles away from their hyper-serious poses, coming across like a Fascist action figure more than a man. At any rate, he is self-evidently a crime novel archetype in a film made out of real-life figures, which is perhaps Larraín's commentary on Chilean authoritarianism as much as a metnarrative flourish.

Peluchonneau is the keystone to the whole movie: his narration covers the real-life matter with the snarling attitude of film noir, and that shift alone dictates most of what makes Neruda so utterly fascinating. It is the literary biopic as crime thriller, and it manages to carry off that baffling and beautiful generic hybridisation without giving up on the unblinking political analysis that has always been Larraín's calling card, reliably circling back to the oppressed and indigent as the natural company for the literary genius, and his poetry as a radical act of democracy (near the end, it even manages to nod, prophet-like, to the specter of Pinochet, the director's great phantom antagonist). Not that it's not perfectly satisfactory as a straight biopic! Gnecco is impeccably-cast as a Neruda doppelgänger, and gives a great performance on its own terms besides: there is a passionate liveliness to the way he moves through spaces and declaims lines, and it's more than easy to understand this man as a politically-minded artist who'd devote his life to protecting and praising the immiserated, the disenfranchised, and the besieged. There's a bit of Falstaff in Gnecco's performance, without any of the moral turpitude. If the only thing one wanted out of the film was an evocation of a larger-than-life artist, Neruda would ably provide it.

It provides so much more, though. The genre-mixing, obviously, which makes the film rather a great deal more pleasurable than it feels like it should have any right to be, while also justifying Sergio Armstrong's dazzling cinematography, which is noir-like in its dramatic shadows and shafts of light peering through windows, but also dusts the Chilean countryside and brothels and homes where the action takes place in a sepia-touched haze of time, memory, and populist nostalgia. The blurred line between genres, like the air of metanarrative, also deepens our sense of Neruda-the-character, if not necessarily the historical Neruda, showing him active and complicit in the construction of his own story by virtue of narrativising himself, and, in some sense, constructing his own alter ego and dark mirror in the form of Peluchonneau, with whom he is so neatly connected by editor Hervè Schneid (there is some real nervy cutting in the film, not just between the two parallel plotlines, but even within Neruda's on thread, smearing the line between private and public behavior, between inner and outer life). The film emerges as not just the story of one man's politics and poetry, but of the mindset that it takes to be that poet-politician in the first place, and the willingness to understand the world in literary terms. That, on top of being a rollicking thriller that's enjoyable simply as brainy entertainment. There's a level of self-satisfaction about all this that not everybody is going to love, and I kind of wish that the film was being a bit less direct in how it mounts its arguments (it's highly literate, but rather more prosy than poetic, if you follow what I mean). But whatever, it's a great piece of cinema and a great attempt to engage with history and pro-people politics that remain no less important in 2016 than in 1948.