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 December 16, 2016

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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