WITH HIS NEW FILM, Neruda, Chile’s master of the political gothic, Pablo Larraín, exhumes a sacred monster: namely, his nation’s 1971 Nobel Laureate, the poet Pablo Neruda. Hardly a biopic, Neruda focuses on a brief, if dramatic, period in its subject’s lifea fifteen-month period from January 1948 through March 1949 during which the poet, an elected senator and an outspoken member of the banned Chilean Communist Party, went underground, finally escaping over the Andes to Argentina.
Neruda devotes only a dozen pages to the topic in his memoirs, half of them concerning the exciting last stage of his getaway. The writing is routinely self-aggrandizing: “Even the stones of Chile” knew his voice, he brags, only partially in jest. The movie, written by Guillermo Calderón, is wryly admiring of Neruda’s imperturbable chutzpah.
Embodied with dour, deadpan magnificence by Luis Gnecco (who played a leftist organizer in No , the third installment of Larraín’s anti-Pinochet trilogy), Neruda is introduced running a gauntlet of flashbulbs as he enters the senatorial washroom to denounce the nation’s sellout president, Gabriel González Videla. The tumult continues as leftists party in masquerade. Neruda, dressed in a burnoose as Lawrence of Arabia, thrills comrades and admirers with his poet’s voice, as his indulgent second wife (charmingly portrayed by the Argentinean actress Mercedes Morán) calls it, sonorously reciting, not for the last time, the youthful love poem that begins, “Tonight I can write the saddest lines. . . .”
The bad fairy at the party, heard but unseen, is the policeman Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), who will be charged with Neruda’s capture. Mocking the poet and his political allies, he is the voice of right-wing resentment: “Communists hate to work. They’d rather burn churches.” Bernal’s Peluchonneau is as sharp and snappy as a switchblade and also absurd, claiming himself the illegitimate son of Chile’s top security officer. Peluchonneau père is a historical figure; the son is a poetic conceit who also speaks in poetry (“I came from a blank page,” he explains). Neruda, who is looking forward to his starring role in a wild manhunt, believes he has imagined his pursuer into existence.
Once underground, Neruda amuses himself with orgieshiding in plain sight, and in drag, when Peluchonneau bursts into a brothel looking for him. Meanwhile, his militant poems circulate throughout the country, demanding punishment for González Videla (played by Larraín’s axiomatic villain, Alfredo Castro).
A highly intelligent political entertainment (the poet’s exchange with a tipsy female cadre is a showstopper), Neruda has a dreamy, noirish component. The camera is fluid, the mise-en-scène is foggy, and there is occasional use of space-flattening rear-screen projection. One step ahead of the dogged Peluchonneau, Neruda hides out in Valparaíso, heading for the ends of the earth and the slushy climax of the final act.
As the poet makes his way toward the land of Borges, then under the rule of Juan Perón, Neruda becomes increasingly Borgesian. Calling Peluchonneau his “phantom in uniform,” Neruda welcomes his antagonist’s tenacious pursuit: “I dream of him and he dreams of me.” Abetted by Pablo Picasso’s embroidery, rapt Parisians celebrate the myth of Neruda’s courageous resistance as his nemesisis buried in obscurity. Once more, Neruda recites the saddest lines of his lugubrious love poem. (Borges, who disliked Neruda, parodied him in his 1945 story “The Aleph” as the vainglorious, long-winded, Walt Whitman–wannabe Carlos Argentino Daneri.)
Neruda is at once a literary riffsoaring far above such foredoomed attempts at putting a writer in his own world as Wim Wenders’s Hammett (1982) and Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka (1991)and a metahistorical national epic. The movie presupposes a knowledgeable spectator. After his Pinochet trilogy and his excavation of the Catholic Church’s guilty secrets, The Club (2015), Larraín is beginning to seem like Chile’s answer to Andrzej Wajda, a sardonic national conscience.
As a historical drama, Neruda makes an odd companion to Larraín’s recently released English-language production Jackie, in which a valiant but unconvincing Natalie Portman, willing herself to impersonate the most enchanting of American political figures, wanders alone through the haunted house of American antiquity. Labored as it is, that movie has a magnificently self-reflexive shot in which Portman’s bewildered Jackie stares blankly at her multiply reproduced imageat once a reflection of her poignant solipsism and a prophecy of Larraín’s portrait of Camelot’s first lady.
Neruda is far less claustrophobic; but it has a comparable, even wittier moment, when the poet’s abandoned wife patiently explains to his tenacious pursuer that “in this fiction, we all revolve around the protagonist.” “Am I a fiction?” the cop demandsand when she replies in the affirmative, he asks, “Are you a fiction?” Smiling sweetly, she answers, “No. I’m real. And I’m eternal.”
Neruda and Jackie are currently playing in select cities throughout the US.
J. Hoberman is a frequent contributor to Artforum.
Read Dennis Lim on Pablo Larraín’s No (February 2013) and James Quandt on Post Mortem, the second film in the director’s Pinochet trilogy (March 2012).
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