by Ted Zep
(R, 1 hr 47 min, Biography/Drama, Subtitles, Director: Pablo Larrain, Writer: Guillermo Calderon, Starring: Gael García Bernal, Luis Gnecco, Alfredo Castro)
Heralded poet Pablo Neruda was the subject of a manhunt in 1948 after being decried by the Chilean government for joining the Communist Party. The story focuses on a little-discussed time of his life. It takes viewers on a ride traveling from plush, high-class soirees to the bitter, unforgiving cold of the Andes. As the plot unfolds, fact and fiction become progressively blurred, leaving a broad, yet oddly specific, portrait of the heralded bard.
…the black eyes stare through the black night.
Pablo Neruda was the most popular and influential poet in La Republica de Chile. He was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said that Neruda was the greatest poet–of any language–of the 20th Century.
The film opens by detailing the rift between Neruda (Luis Gnecco), at the time a senator, and the then-current Chilean regime. His politics were not appreciated. He mocked the government, trumpeted the Communist way, and was soon deposed. When he went underground, a mandate for his arrest was issued. The narrative shifts between following Neruda and the policeman assigned to catch him, Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal).
Much of the film concentrates on building the legacy and mystique of Neruda. He was already a heralded writer but Guillermo Calderon’s script moves to canonize him as an Ideal. He is represented as surpassing mere mortaldom by becoming his art. Even though he and Peluchonneau don’t meet until the end of the picture, Neruda is portrayed as orchestrating the entire cat and mouse chase that comprises the movie. So much so that the detective realizes that he is merely a supporting character in the saga. The only way that he will achieve renown is by capturing someone who is already of note. Otherwise, he remains a nameless, faceless government employee.
The first third of the film is shot in soft focus. Most of the scenes are in darkened settings. The more comfortable, and urban, that Neruda’s life is at the time, the hazier and dusky it is visually represented on screen. Perhaps this is in reaction to his Communist leanings being in contrast to his comfortable lifestyle?
As the noose tightens around Neruda’s neck, the chase leads to the countryside. It is here that his surroundings are stark white, austere, and decidedly less agreeable. In Neruda’s world exposure and discomfort seem to represent purity.
The black/white, dark/light manifests itself in other sections of the film, as well. There is a scene in which Neruda’s wife Delia wants to make love to him. He declines. We soon find him leaving his apartment dressed in solid black from head to toe. He goes to a brothel where he frolics with multiple prostitutes. It is clear that he loves his wife, he is just no longer attracted to her. Perhaps his fame poisoned that? Perhaps time? Money and celebrity offer him options that often create caverns in the physical relationships of well-known individuals.
Later, the detective is hot on his tail. Neruda is at a tailor shop having a white suit custom made for him. He leaves the shop in his new outfit and runs into a homeless girl. He has no money to give her but he warmly embraces her, in a grander sense embracing the people of Chile. He leaves her with the white jacket. He leaves her with a piece of his privilege.
The gender/sexual politics of the film are a bit troubling. As mentioned earlier, he declines sex with his wife to make love to courtesans. A bit later, his first wife is found by the police. They convince her to go on the radio to declare him a bigamist. He owes her back alimony which has accumulated because he has fallen behind making payments. However, once on the air, she admits that he owes her money but refuses to besmirch him. Despite leaving her and moving on to another woman, she insists that he is a good man with a good heart. She won’t cloud the people’s perception of him. Is this because he was truly a decent man with similar politics? Is it because she realized the importance of the position he held in the people’s hearts? Is it because women in late-1940s Chile didn’t speak out against prominent men? The answer isn’t revealed.
Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
The most moving scene in the film takes place between Peluchonneau and a cross-dressing prostitute. Neruda once again finds himself at a bagnio. Upon entering, the escort notices him and began to sing a song for the famous guest. The other prostitutes mock the man’s singing but Neruda appreciates the gesture. The two share a moment. Later, the brothel is raided. Neruda avoids arrest by dressing in drag. He narrowly escapes.
The crossdressing whore is taken into custody and interrogated by Peluchonneau. He tells the officer it was a miracle to see someone of Neruda’s stature where he worked. He sang to Neruda and Neruda recited a poem to him in return. The poet showed interest in him as a person. He called him an artist. He treated him with respect, as an equal. This was a powerful and mesmerizing scene.
It is moments like this in the film that give its richness. The tenderness he offered the prostitute and homeless girl counterbalance the sourness of his ego and infidelity. It may not be a literal representation of who Neruda was…but it paints the intended picture with life and dimension.
To write well, one must know how to erase.
I screened Neruda twice before reviewing it. Each time that I watched it I couldn’t help but think about the present-day United States. I can’t even imagine a society where a poet is afforded political clout by people en masse. Picture a United States where a writer could command the respect to stop workers in their tracks to enrage, motivate, or inspire them. We have celebrities with political leanings but they are self-serving monstrosities like Donald Trump and Kanye West. There is no one with both the intelligence, power, and voice behind them who have the interests of society as a whole in mind. We don’t even have figures who PRETEND to play the part. All pretense has been dropped. It’s terrifying, to say the least.
Neruda is the Chilean entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the forthcoming 89th Academy Awards. The picture soars on the backs of Gnecco and Bernal’s dual performances. They are earnest and passionate in their portrayals of the poet and the pursuer. The reality of the script may be splattered with healthy doses of fiction but it works as both cinema and propaganda.
It’s nearly impossible to balance someone’s image and intentions with who they truly are. Even the best and brightest people have flaws or secrets that drag them back to being mere humans sooner than later. Pablo Larrain attempts to paint a picture of Neruda that frees him of these tethers by highlighting his talent, passion, and vision. And it works. Neruda (the film) has an ethereal quality to it that elevates Neruda (the concept) to rarefied air.
Neruda opens February 17 at The Nightlight Cinema. For tickets and showtimes, visit their website.