Pablo Larraín’s dizzying chase film, Neruda, chronicles the poet’s year in hiding and the fictional detective on his tail. Read our interview with Larraín on his 2019 film Ema here.
Just days into the national hangover following the presidential election, I saw Pablo Larraín’s Neruda, a brisk biographical chase film about the communist Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, by the dazzling Chilean director Pablo Larraín, and it seemed to sing with the choruses of the American left. Whatever else contributed to the ascension of a common magpie to the presidency, the blame lies partly with the left party for its failure to galvanize the workers in battleground states. Never mind that the losses in the Rust Belt were slim; it’s troubling that it was even close. What is the historical party of labour with such distance from labourers? The recurring question of Neruda stings the same tender flesh. The pudgy poet rose to power as a champion of the miners in the arid Atacama, but in cosmopolitan Santiago, he lives among the socialites in idle distraction. How can he be the voice of the people from his party palace?
Guillermo Calderón’s script deliriously dramatizes Pablo Neruda’s life from early 1948 to early 1949, when a political manhunt forced the celebrity Stalinist into hiding. Larraín reunites the stars of his 2012 film, No: Luis Gnecco as Neruda and Gael García Bernal as Oscar Peluchonneau, the detective hot on his tail. The whole thing is narrated from afar by Peluchonneau with hilarious gravitas. But on-screen, there’s usually a wall between cat and mouse. The Neruda half is a historical political drama, all ideals and strategy. The Peluchonneau half is the fictional B-movie, a comic policier with western elements. And that’s where the poetry comes in.Larraín finds the best view of the poet isn’t head-on, but refracted.Click To Tweet
The impetus for the hunt is Senator Neruda’s fiery philippic — titled “Yo acuso,” which is Spanish for “J’accuse!” — in defense of the striking workers and communist comrades who had been rounded up and deposited in a dusty desert concentration camp. Naturally, the first act of Neruda is littered with people telling the senator to watch his mouth. Just before the chase begins, President Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro) warns Neruda his language is what gets him into trouble. “No,” says Pablo, in a dislocating cut that preserves continuity but transfers the setting from a cordial mixed-company dinner to a dark standoff in the great hall, “what got me in trouble is being a communist.”
Indeed, Neruda is far less concerned with the danger of its subject’s voice than the integrity of his politics — at least, in his half of the hunt. To cover for the mess they’ve made of a host’s house, Neruda’s wife Delia (Mercedes Morán) says, “Hygiene is a bourgeois value.” Her husband adds, “If we don’t clean, it’s for political reasons.”
Neruda is a fellow traveler to a band of movies about idealists and revolutionaries — such as the May ’68 films Regular Lovers and Something In The Air or even the terrorist superstar portrait Carlos — where the drama backslides from challenging the establishment to second-guessing the opposition. It’s a tale as old as communism. As a disillusioned waitress puts it, “What I want to know is, when communism comes, will we all be equal to him,” gesturing to the fat and happy Neruda, “or equal to me…one who’s cleaned the shit of the bourgeoisie since I was 11?” Finally, an edge sharp enough to puncture the sparkling bubble that surrounds the poet.
The confrontation calls to mind the scene in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There where a hotel waiter brandishes a knife and calls Bob Dylan a traitor for apparently turning his back on folk music. I’m Not There is a smart, if far out of reach, companion film for Neruda; each is a chronicle of one of the 20th century’s greatest outlaw poets by one of contemporary cinema’s liveliest postmodernists. Larraín’s whimsical biopic even begins the same way as Haynes’, with the star subject being led down the hall, around the corner, and onto his stage. For Dylan, that’s an actual stage. For Neruda, it’s the opulent Chilean capitol men’s room, crowded with men who have come to grandstand while relieving themselves. Low butts right up against high in the grand shitter.Neruda’s postmodernism is punkish and plural — always collapsing the space between the politico and the people.Click To Tweet
The cinematography of this scene captures Neruda’s defining quality: the restlessness of the fugitive. The camera follows, then leads, then follows again, veering all around the chamber, and carefully closing in on its targets. That restlessness extends to the editing. The 180-degree rule is crumpled up and thrown out the window in the first cut, and jump cuts routinely reposition scenes in progress just to show us another view. Neruda’s postmodernism is punkish and plural — always collapsing the space between the politico and the people.
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I’m Not There demonstrates its own defining quality in its opening scene, with the camera as the subject of the film. It, you, we are being led to the stage. That’s the key to Haynes’ Whitmanian approach: his Dylan contains multitudes. The real Neruda, as it were — like Dylan, Neruda’s a pen name, a created and creative self — is a literary heir to Whitman. Neruda’s magnum opus, Canto General, the writing and distribution of which is the primary artistic labour in the film, recalls “Song of Myself” in its multiplicity. It’s a monument built brick by brick: the story of the stones and the beasts of the Americas, the peoples and their labours, the history and the scope. To evoke such a catalogue on film might resemble an expanded city symphony, a Werner Herzog cinemenagerie, a Wojciech Wiszniewski tableau documentary, Synecdoche, New York, or The Tree of Life. Neruda doesn’t even try.
There’s no point in blaming a movie for failing a test it’s not taking, but it’s disappointing how little Neruda offers of the artist, the technician, the terraformer. Poet-hood in the film is a life of charming recitation, sensuous adventure, and personal myth-making. Whenever he’s begged to recite some of his poetry, Neruda dutifully performs “Tonight I Can Write,” an exquisite piece that nevertheless hurts his ego since it was written a quarter of a century prior. Luis Gnecco embodies both conspiratorial mischief in his eyes and pride in his unhurried movements. His Neruda is both of and above the people.Poet-hood in the film is a life of charming recitation, sensuous adventure, and personal myth-making.Click To Tweet
In the tradition of Haynes and Whitman, Larraín finds the best view of the poet isn’t head-on, but refracted. He shows us the politician directly but the poet in a mirror. That mirror image is the other half of the chase, the made-up detective who’s the heart and soul of the film.
Oscar Peluchonneau is a dimestore paperback policeman come to life: decisive, straight, 2-D. Bernal brings a masterful silliness to the character, filling him with the unearned gravitas of the stuffed shirt. It’s a poker-faced performance. His running narration animates the flattest stretches, spouting political wisecracks at his quarry, fantasizing about his heroic exploits, and even offering poetic aphorisms with varying degrees of wisdom. Alas, he’s a fool. Perpetually blinded by the blown-out lighting and obscured amid the pyrotechnic display of the lens flares, Peluchonneau would be lost if not for the pointed trail of detective stories Neruda leaves behind.
After a plot to smear Neruda over the radio fails, Peluchonneau announces, “Hola, hola, Chile,” in a quiet calm just on the uncanny valley side of threatening. “The poet is a public menace — and an unforgettable lover.” Javert to Neruda’s Valjean, Peluchonneau’s obsession repeatedly betrays its homoerotic edge, and that only amplifies his tragedy. Here’s a man who exists to be denied resolution. More to the point, here’s a man becoming aware of that fact. He’s a buffoon discovering his own buffoonery, coming to fathom the walls of his own consciousness. It’s spectacular.
Here in the final act, as Peluchonneau pursues Neruda through the Andes toward Argentina, the timely surrenders to the timeless. Bernal and Larraín concoct such a sudden poignancy and lasting wonder that Neruda can’t be chained to the baggage of the present. Nestled among the Nerudan imagery of snowy araucaria and luminous lavender skies, Neruda breaks free.
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