Dissident-Poet on the Lam: A New Film Captures Pablo Neruda’s Year as a Fugitive

Pablo Larrain’s Neruda follows the love-poet-cum-Communist-dissident in a cat-and-mouse chase with the Chilean government.

Michael Atkinson

Gael García Bernal as Óscar Peluchonneau, the detective Neruda playfully evades. (Courtesy of The Orchard)

If ever there was someone overdue for a biopic, it’s Pablo Neruda — a globally beloved Nobel-winning poet who was also a defiant leftist crusader, who also, persecuted by his fascist government, became a spy-like fugitive in his own nation, eventually escaped the massive manhunt on horseback across the Andes and then lived on for another quarter-century as one of the world’s most famous Socialists. And, of course, who also wrote love poems that ring in the hearts of millions, many of whom quote him from memory but know no other poetry. 

For once, blessedly, the poet-idealist triumphs.

In Neruda, director Pablo LarraÍn and scriptwriter Guillermo Calderón astutely zero in on 1948 and 1949, beginning with Neruda (Luis Gnecco), a national celebrity poet and now a Communist senator, gearing up to dress down President Gabriel González Videla over worker suppression and concentration camps in the famous I accuse” speech. It’s a savory opening, as the camera follows a foul-mouthed Neruda through the Senate’s crowded halls and into the vast marble bathroom, equipped with its own lavish bar and thick with communing politicians, the pro- and anti-Neruda camps in a state of near-combat.

Neruda delivers his speech and then, warned that he’s targeted for arrest as a dissident, quickly decides to go underground with his adoring wife (Mercedes Morán). They bounce all over the country, from one safe house to an-other, appearing in public then disappearing, taunting the authorities with his proximity and fame. (Brothels are a favorite flop.) Throughout the year, Neruda would still write poetry and have friends mail the manuscripts to his publisher, disseminating his words nationwide, including his poem The Enemies” with its protest chant of I demand punishment.” 

Neruda’s foil in the film is its most inspired creation: special prosecutor Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), a fictionalized manhunter who narrates the film and maintains a poetic, quasi-Les Miserables relationship with the famous man he pursues. Peluchonneau is a dapper, whimsical creation: ironically describing his own role in the world, embracing serendipity as fate and cracking wise about his own political reality — working for a president whose boss” — the U.S. — instructs him to kill Communists.” And Bernal is, as always, savvy and soulful. The connection between the two men is further poeticized by Neruda’s habit of leaving sympathetic and suggestive Dear Policeman” letters behind for his adversary, enclosed in crime fiction paperbacks that Peluchonneau happily mines for clues. 

It’s all a game, but one with grim repercussions. Larraín vividly limns how the manhunt and the pervasive propaganda painting Neruda as a traitor divided the country and drove it nuts, forecasting the all-too-familiar volleying back and forth for years between progressive democracy and authoritarian conservatism, the extremes of which finally exploded in the 1970s with Allende’s rise and Pinochet’s coup. The film is thick with voices, as Neruda’s journey intersects with dozens of other characters, all with their own measures of cynicism, devotion and bitterness. 

Larraín imagines the chase as a dia-logue between two competing works of fiction. In one lovely scene, Neruda’s bemused wife is cornered by the policeman in a friendly bout of drinking, during which she muses that in his head her husband is writing a fascinating novel. He wrote you … as the tragic cop. … He created you … a dog in the night, hearing things you’ll never understand.” Would there be a hunter without a quarry? He thinks about you thinking about him,” she tells the dick. All detectives are in love, and all detective stories have beds.”

For once, blessedly, the poet-idealist triumphs, and the tale of the authoritarian, Peluchonneau’s detective story, ends badly, in the Andean snow. The film is resonant in its visual choices, opting for a faded color palette that powerfully evokes the dulled colors of sun-bleached Polaroids, and even relies upon obvious back-projection in the many driving scenes, effortlessly conjuring the mid-century as it envisioned itself through movies.

The past is hardly past: Neruda is a vintage figure, but his story is made fresh by both the filmmakers’ imaginative will and by the oppression-stalked century we find ourselves in. 

Michael Atkinson is a film reviewer for In These Times. He has written or edited many books, including Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (2008) and the mystery novels Hemingway Deadlights (2009) and Hemingway Cutthroat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Conduct.
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