NERUDA, drama, rated R, in Spanish with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3.5 chiles
Chilean director Pablo Larraín has two movies out concurrently, and though both bear a passing resemblance to the biopic genre — and each bears the single name of its subject — neither is a life story, and they could scarcely be more different. Jackie (the director’s maiden English-language effort) tells the story of the three worst days in the life of one of the world’s most famous women. Neruda is a fanciful adventure in the life, or perhaps in the head, of one of the world’s most famous poets.
Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) was also one of Chile’s most famous political figures, as a senator representing the Communist Party. The movie picks up his story in 1948, and finds him at odds with his country’s president, Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro), a man he campaigned for and now wishes he hadn’t. Videla, moving the country sharply to the right, has outlawed the Communist Party. As a result of this ban, Neruda finds himself a fugitive.
Like Ian McKellen’s Richard III (1995), another film dealing with 20th-century fascism, Neruda opens in a men’s room. In Larraín’s sly construct, the Chilean Senate lounge is fitted with urinals and washbasins, and the pols conduct their business while conducting their business. Under attack from his conservative colleagues for turning on the president he helped elect, Neruda moves from pissoir to lavabo, laconically self-confident and in control, saying, “We all elected him, Senator. Regrettably, we all did.”
As Neruda is forced to go on the lam, he becomes the obsession of his own personal Javert, ”scar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), a tightly buttoned cop who is (or believes himself to be) the illegitimate son of the founder of the national police force. Peluchonneau (the name derives from the Spanish word for teddy bear) is a fictional character, and a conflicted one. He admires Neruda’s poetry, but he is determined to bring him to justice. He also serves as the film’s narrator.
Blocked from leaving the country by a discrepancy between his name and his passport (Neruda was born Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto), he and his wife, the painter Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán) go into hiding in a succession of safe houses provided by friends and sympathizers. But Neruda enjoys the cat-and-mouse game of the chase. At one point, an exasperated Delia asks, “Do you want them to find you?” Neruda reflects a moment, then replies, “No, but I’d like to feel them close.” But perhaps both sides are playing the same game; at a dinner, a drunken guest observes that “it’s in the government’s interest to hunt him, but not to find him.”
As played, terrifically, by Gnecco, who reportedly gained 50 pounds and donned a wig to disappear into the character, Neruda is a self-made intellectual aristocrat, a man of humble origins who feels superior to everyone around him, whether it’s his wife, government power brokers, or the communist handlers assigned to protect him. An incorrigible sybarite, he slips his handlers whenever he can to cavort naked with women at local bordellos.
As the chase continues, we feel an increasing connection between Neruda and Peluchonneau, a sense that they need and complete each other. The poet romanticizes his flight, and the policeman finds himself more and more drawn into the mystique of the man he is pursuing. When he finally encounters Delia, whom Neruda has by now left behind, she tells the detective that he is only a supporting character in this epic created by her husband. “You don’t understand, do you,” she says, smiling. “In this fiction, we all revolve around the protagonist. He created you.”
In the fabulist sardonic mood with which Larraín and screenwriter Guillermo Calderón surround this story, it begins to seem entirely possible that Peluchonnau is a creation of the poet’s imagination. Neruda did in fact go on the run in 1948, when the Communist Party was banned in Chile and a warrant was issued for his arrest. But the dogged pursuit of the the poet by the fictional police inspector, underscored with Peluchonneau’s sometimes-acerbic, sometimes-fanciful narration, imbues the movie with the aura of a tall tale — though one with real-world consequences, nonetheless. A scene in which communist prisoners are herded into a barbed-wired concentration camp run by a young military officer named Augusto Pinochet casts a cold light upon a future of authoritarian rule and brutal repression.
In real life, Neruda dramatically escaped the country by traveling on horseback over the Andes. The movie uses this event to create a visually stunning final act that has echoes of Robert Altman’s haunting finish to McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
Several times in the movie Neruda returns to one of his more famous poems: “Tonight I can write the saddest lines. To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have
lost her.” It’s an elegy to lost love, but it could also come to serve as a political lament for the loss of national idealism and freedom that his country would endure.
— Jonathan Richards
Poet in perspective: Luis Gnecco
In hot pursuit: Gael García Bernal