Tuesday, 11 April 2017


Neruda, which played in the directors' competition at Cannes and the official competition at the London Film Festival, and is now on release, is set around the thirteen months Pablo Neruda, poet and Communist Party Senator, spent hiding in Chile after President Gonzalez Videla turned on the leaders of the broad left coalition that elected him, declared the communists illegal, and began rounding them up for incarceration. But Pablo Larrain's film is neither thriller nor bio-pic. Rather it is a poetic essay in art, character, and politics, one that seems structured not by its narrative but by Neruda's poems themselves.

This becomes evident in an opening scene where Senator Neruda debates his colleagues in an august chamber that turns out to be the urinals in a men's room, like you might find in London men's clubs or Turkish baths. It's as surreal as anything in Bunuel, and reminds us that Neruda's early poetry, influenced by his time in Spain, was surrealistic. It's a tour de force which contrasts with another early scene inside a wild party thrown by Neruda and his wife Delia, who makes him up for his costume as all around them champagne flows and naked female breasts bounce. There we're reminded of the Bunuel who dismantles the bourgeoisie yet is very much a part of it. This is one of the film's key issues: Neruda the communist not only lives a privileged life, but Neruda the poet's value to the party is such that he is literally protected from the very real discomfort most of his comrades now face.

The movie quickly moves to a noirish thriller format, as Neruda is chased by the young detective Oscar Peluchonneau, who may well have been put on the case because he is not expected to succeed. Oscar is the narrator of the film, and his own story serves as a sort of convex mirror to Neruda's: he is the illegitimate son of a famed policeman, an outsider drawn to Neruda's work even as he hunts him down. At times this is superbly shot as noir by Sergio Armstrong; it also verges on an almost Tom & Jerry kind of parody: Neruda escapes detection in a brothel by donning dress and wig; in a photographer's shop by putting his head inside a frame. There are a number of scenes where party photographers set up seemingly comic staged shots to use as propaganda. And in the final chase, as Neruda crosses the Andes on horseback, Oscar pursues in a motorcyle sidecar, shot against a patently cheesy back-projection. But now this comic effect sets us up for the real poignancy of the denouement, itself shot with austere beauty in the snowy mountains. Perhaps this is what all the comedy is doing.

Delia tells Oscar that he might just be a character in a Neruda story; the poet after all was a huge fan of thrillers. But Oscar may also believe that Neruda is a character in his story. Both these fantasies are, in their way true; this is another of Larrain's themes, and one which is reinforced by the editing, by Herve Schneid, which breaks up scenes yet keeps them flowing, as if to suggest a timeless quality, a sense that the situations are unchanging, almost pre-destined. The politics of the right seems locked into a sort of Chilean machismo which Neruda, in this movie, specifically plays against. He speaks to women through his poetry, which again is pointed out by his sad love scene with Delia; his disinterest disappears when he is in the brothel, though here he merely drinks and recites. The timeless theme is reinforced by the mention, in passing, of the commandant of one of the concentration camps set up for the communists and union members, he is a young colonel named Augusto Pinochet.

He's helped by the performances. Remembering this is not a bio-pic, some details change; for example Delia was actually twenty years older than Neruda. Luis Gnecco as Neruda sometimes seems to old, too soft; but he can transform himself quickly. Mercedes Moran as Delia is perfect, the aristocratic Argentinian artist who loves the poet. And Gael Garcia Bernal is just as good as the perhaps deluded Oscar; he is a cypher we cannot quite figure out in the way that we think we know Neruda himself. The film proceeds at a dreamy pace for an erzatz thriller, and there is perhaps too much repetition is very similar scenes; one too many brothels and a thousand party arguments behind.

But it is bookended by brilliance, and the coda, with Neruda in Paris being introduced by Picasso, is another telling touch. We recall the controversary around Picasso's own special place with the Resistance, and when he introduces Neruda as an underground resistance fighter we know how false the description is, even as we see shots of those who aided him escape Chile as they languish in prison. I thought of the fate of Varian Fry, ignored after rescuing dozens of major artists from the Nazis. But in these scenes it is a different, younger and stronger Neruda who reads to adoring French crowds: Gnecco has pulled his character into that new role.

Neruda the film is indeed like the poetry of its subject, and it builds like a shelf full of his poems. Underneath, it examines the writer's place, his heart, and his life in a way a more straightforward biography might not.

Neruda, directed by Pablo Larrain, written by Guillermo Calderon
is in cinemas from 7 April

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