Luis Gnecco as Pablo Neruda
Filmmaker Pablo Larraín calls Neruda, his new film about the Chilean Nobel Prize-winning poet, “an anti-biopic.” Like its extraordinarily creative subject, Neruda is poetic, in form and content. Call it poetry in motion—motion pictures, that is.
Neruda exhibits a formal style that captures the poet’s essence. The 108-minute must-see film, is sure to perpetuate Pablo Neruda’s popularity, bringing his life, poems, and vision to a new generation of moviegoers and poetry lovers.
The revolutionary artist is portrayed by Santiago-born Luis Gnecco, who previously co-starred in Larraín’s 2012 No, a Best Foreign Film Oscar-nominee about an advertising campaign opposing dictator Augusto Pinochet in Chile’s 1988 referendum. Neruda also stars Mexican actor Gael García Bernal as a fictitious secret policeman named Oscar Peluchonneau. Bernal portrayed Che Guevara in the two-part 2002 cable TV movie Fidel and starred in The Motorcycle Diaries in 2004.
Pablo Neruda was the people’s poet, filling South American stadiums with up to 100,000 aficionados, listening to verse that gave voice to the yearnings and troubles of the wretched of the Earth. As the Chilean poet wrote about the slaves who built Peru’s Andean Citadel in The Heights of Macchu Picchu, Canto XII:
“Point out to me the rock on which you stumbled,
the wood they used to crucify your body
Strike the old flint
to kindle ancient lamps, light up the whips
glued to your wounds throughout the centuries
and light the axes gleaming with your blood.
“I come to speak for your dead mouths…
“Come quickly to my veins and to my mouth.
“Speak through my speech, and through my blood.”
Neruda tried to put theory into practice not only as a poet and activist but as a diplomat—representing Chile during the Spanish Civil War—and as a politician. His wife, the Argentina-born communist painter Delia del Carril (played by Argentine actress Mercedes Morán), influenced and politicized Neruda, who was twenty years her junior. She introduced him to Garcia Lorca and Pablo Picasso (Emilio Gutiérrez Caba). The film focuses on the period when Neruda, a Communist Party member, served as a senator until Chilean President Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro)—whom Neruda had campaigned for—outlawed communism in 1948 during the Cold War. We see scenes from harrowing prison camps (in what may also refer to the widespread repression following Generalissimo Pinochet’s bloody 1973 coup d’etat). After a warrant is issued for his arrest, Pablo and Delia go underground and try to escape Chile.
With the zeal of Les Miserables’ Inspector Javert, Peluchonneau relentlessly pursues the famous poet, along with the possibility of becoming a celebrity himself if he should succeed in capturing his renowned prey. A year-long cat-and-mouse game ensues, involving some 300 other lawmen, as the secret policeman hounds the renegade Pablo and Delia, from Santiago to Valparaiso to the snow-capped Andes and beyond. In doing so Neruda combines several genres: Road movies, film noir and political pictures in the tradition of Costa-Gavras. Costa-Gavras’ 1972 State of Siege showcases urban guerrillas in Uruguay and his 1982 Missing explores the aftermath of Pinochet’s Kissinger-backed coup against Chile’s democratically elected, socialist president Salvador Allende, to whom Neruda was a close adviser.
Although the filmmakers clearly admire Neruda, the film is no mere hagiography. The “R”-rated movie depicts the ardent Communist as a hedonistic free spirit who loves wine, women and song. The card carrying, dues paying Party member is shown indulging in wild parties as the film raises questions, and eyebrows, concerning the relatively privileged positions of some leftist artists and intelligentsia. Neruda and his pro-Moscow artsy, intellectual comrades may love the workers, but they certainly don’t want to be proletarians or campesinos who must dirty their hands in factories or fields. At one shindig a plebeian woman is shown looking askance at the radicals’ revelry and the costly drink and food, reminding this film historian of the moniker given to well-compensated Hollywood Reds such as Dalton Trumbo in the 1940s: “Swimming pool socialists.” Gnecco’s background acting in comedies (he has played the Ricky Gervais part in Chile’s version of The Office TV series) serves him well here.
Although the portly, passionate Neruda followed the Party line much of his life, his freewheeling, liberty-loving, libertine ways show a different side of the revolutionary spirit. At another gathering while he is on the lam, Neruda meets a transvestite, who he treats with compassion and dignity. The fugitive poet may have sometimes lived the high life, but Neruda does express the plight and aspirations of ordinary and marginalized people.
To escape his pursuers, the poet eventually fled abroad and lived in exile from 1949 to 1952 in Mexico, France, Italy’s isle of Capri and beyond. Film and opera lovers may be familiar with this period of Neruda’s overseas banishment, which inspired the fictional 1994 Italian film Il Postino (The Postman), starring French actor Philippe Noiret as Neruda. Il Postino was nominated for four Academy Awards, including for Best Picture, and won for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score. Mexico-born composer/librettist Daniel Catan adapted Antonio Skarmeta’s 1985 novel Burning Patience for an operatic version of Il Postino, which starred celebrated Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo as Pablo, premiering 2010 at LA Opera.
Neruda died in 1973 under disputed circumstances after Pinochet’s jackbooted overthrow of Allende. He remains influential and beloved, especially in Latin America. This highly entertaining, enlightening film was screened in November at the AFI Fest in Los Angeles and opens in theaters December 16, 2016 in New York and Los Angeles— just a couple of weeks after director Pablo Larraín’s first English language film, Jackie, starring Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy, was released. Neruda is in Spanish with English subtitles and is Chile’s Official Oscar Entry for Best Foreign Language Film in 2016.
L.A.-based critic/film historian Ed Rampell is The Progressive’s Man in Hollywood.