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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

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