Challenger of Categories: Neruda, a film by Pablo Larrain

by Daniel Garrett Volume 27, Issue 8-9-10 / October 2023 15 minutes (3583 words)

Words. Perceptions and thoughts. Experiences. Observed objects. Color and light, delicacy, impression, meter, rhyme, shimmer, and sound. Culture and history. Possibilities. Vision. Poetry is an ethereal state and a fine art, a fragile thing; and for all its fragility, poetry transcends nations, transcends time. Pablo Neruda was a poet whose work gave him the world’s attention, gave him power, and gave him immortality. We watch actor Luis Gnecco as Neruda enter an elegant room with a liquor bar, actually an elegant but crowded legislative men’s room with a liquor bar and urinals against a wall; and at the bar suited elected officials gather and talk; and the beloved but controversial Chilean writer Pablo Neruda (1904 – 1973), a poet and senator born to a working class family who named him Ricardo Eliecer Neftali Reyes y Basoalto, is mocked for his support of labor, his association with Russia, and for his poetry career and his chosen name, but Neruda defends himself and his principles. Committed to poetry and politics Neruda may be, he is also a sensualist, someone who loves to party; and the costume party Neruda and his wife Delia del Carril (Mercedes Moran), an Argentine aristocrat and painter, have for their friends and family, for bohemians and political associates, has live music, and more than a little nudity, and a live horse as mascot. Pablo Neruda is dressed as a sheik, white—robed, and he recites poetry. It is 1948. Pablo Neruda is soon told that the communists, anticipating political persecution, think that their leaders, including Neruda, should go into hiding before they are arrested by the conservative government.

In an international scene recovering from the second world war of the twentieth-century, Chile in 1948 under President Gabriel Gonzalez Videla was becoming more conservative, encouraged by the United States in its suspicion and repression of communists—those who embraced a labor theory of value, advocating economics founded on the collective ownership of property and resources, with policies and projects focused on benefitting the common people. The rights of workers and the prerogatives of artists were threatened by the government of President Videla. Pablo Neruda embodies the connection of different areas of life, of different perspectives, that a controlling government fears. Imaginative visual art about personal character and public responsibilities, the film Neruda (2016), a work of history and literature, suspense and adventure, written by Guillermo Calderon and directed by Pablo Larrain, with cinematography by Sergio Armstrong and production design by Estefania Larrain, edited by Herve Schneid, stars as the esteemed poet, diplomat, and senator Pablo Neruda the actor Luis Gnecco, who was the lead in El Bosque de Karadima, or Karadima’s Forest (Matias Lira, 2015), about a pedophile priest, and also appeared as progressive activist Jose Urrutia in Pablo Larrain’s No (2012), about the 1988 public referendum on Augusto Pinochet’s leadership; and here, Luis Gnecco’s co-stars are Gael Garcia Bernal and Mercedes Moran. Pablo Neruda (Gnecco), elected to the senate in 1943, seems at once brave, naive, and wily when Neruda meets with the president of the Chilean senate and asks the senate leader to free political prisoners. However Neruda is warned against his free speech, his use of language, his rebellion and advocacy. The conversation between the two men takes place in different locations, giving it an active yet abstract (surreal, timeless) quality. We do not see the men walk from place to place—the locations change, simply, as if it is an ideal or symbolic conversation (or even a conversation they always are having). The senate president tells Neruda that Neruda and his associates were seduced by false populism. It is a civilized conversation haunted by the threat of brutality. What should Neruda do: run and hide, or allow his own arrest?

Poetry has the resources of imagination and spirit, of symbols. Pablo Neruda, attempting to convey his own interpretation of himself and current events to his public, is photographed with his wife in front of a sign affirming political resistance. Neruda, possibly inevitably, has decided to dramatize his evasion of the police, making that heroic and symbolic (rather than personal and cowardly). Gael Garcia Bernal plays a police investigator who is assigned to locate Neruda, Oscar Peluchonneau; and the prolific Bernal, an actor, director, and writer, featured in Amores Perros (2000), Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001), Fidel (2002), The Motorcycle Diaries (2003), The Science of Sleep (2006), Blindness (2008) and, more recently, Cesar Chavez (2014) and Desierto (2015), here as Oscar Peluchonneau, a detective and interpreter, is a figure of both fact and fiction—an invented character representing an actual search. Is the detective merely vain? Gael Garcia Bernal, slim and small, appears suave, sensual, confident, and foolish. The policeman meets with the president of the nation, so his assignment seems serious: but is it? Does the state really want to confront or capture the admired Neruda?

The power of poetry, fine and fiery, fleeting and flowing, is more ephemeral than the power of any official establishment, cultural or political, but the state tries to limit poetry to its own stable, stringent terms; and yet one realm, aesthetic and spiritual, can threaten the other, legal and material. In an “Ode to Criticism,” as translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, the poet Pablo Neruda writes of his own work and how it is received differently by ordinary people and professional critics: his work at once is about color, object, refuge, treasure, and thought, shaping him as he shapes it, and it becomes something of inspiring value, practical and spiritual, for his readers, but then critics, with their contrasting perspectives, their gifts and their dullness, attempt to possess it, to entrap and tame it, to entomb it: “They trapped and tricked it, / they rolled it in a scroll, / they secured it with a hundred pins, / they covered it with skeleton dust, / they drowned it in ink, / they spit on it with the suave / benignity of a cat, / …” Neruda wrote (I Explain a Few Things: Selected Poems, edited by Ilan Stavans and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007; page 93). The poet recognizes critical frustration with, and abandonment of, his work, and the subsequent reclamation of that work by simple people. Whereas a cultural establishment may want the poet’s work to exemplify a tradition or a trend, the political establishment wants frequently for the poet’s work to affirm its principles and power. Those who care about poetry, who love it, who delight in it, want poetry to be alive and speaking to them, whatever it says.

Pablo Neruda was a man of appetite, imagination, intellect, and passion, a great artist, a central figure in Latin American culture and world literature, an influence and an inspiration, someone who is too large to fit easily into a category, according to film director Pablo Larrain, himself the son of a father who was a conservative senator and a mother who was a minister of housing and urban life; Larrain, a director whose films explore particular subjects with complexity. Pablo Larrain’s oeuvre includes Fuga (2005), about a mad composer; Tony Manero (2008), a crime drama featuring a man devoted to the lead character in Saturday Night Fever; Post Mortem (2010), a story of love and politics, involving a pathologist’s assistant and dancer during Salvador Allende’s much regretted denouement; No (2012), also starring Gael Garcia Bernal, about a political campaign promoting happiness in opposition to the grim, stifling dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet; and The Club (2015), a portrait of corrupt priests. Pablo Larrain is contributing to local and international cinema: in Chile, films began to be made in the early years of the twentieth century, and Chilean cinema was known for the creations of Alberto Santana (The Book of Life, 1923) and Pietro Sienna (The Hussar of Death,1925), before diminishing with the coming of sound and competition from Hollywood; and Chilean films were rescued in the 1940s and 50s with government support and the emergence of aesthetic invention and political expression, perceptible in the late 1960s work of Raul Ruiz and Aldo Francis, Miguel Litten, and Helvio Soto; a creativity the military dictatorship of Pinochet suppressed for almost twenty years. Chilean cinema has been attempting to recover and renew itself since then with works by practitioners such as Pablo Larrain, who may be known best now for Jackie (2016), about President John Kennedy’s assassination and the brave, dignified survival of his widow. Pablo Larrain’s motion picture Neruda (2016), which Larrain described as a metafictional labyrinth, is full of strange landscapes and luxurious interiors, and features an actor, Luis Gnecco, who bears a genuine resemblance to the poet, balding, plump, impish, and both Gnecco and Neruda share a resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock, whose oeuvre haunts this film.

Neruda was photographed in about seventy locations over fifty-five days; and the film seems both natural and theatrical, utilizing color tinting, rear screen projection, and diverse genre conventions. The staging of the film’s scenes in well-furnished spaces has a restrained theatricality but theatrical it is, featuring posed figures, men and women who are often still while reciting. The film’s spoken narration describes the mountains separating Chile and Argentina as waves that do not break as “a gigantic wave,” says the narrator—who seems to be the investigator, making him something of an interpreter of Neruda (akin to a critic who claims art and artist). Argentina is described as a real country, with things that grow, implying it is the opposite of Chile. At the Chilean border, Pablo Neruda’s wife Delia (Mercedes Moran), answering a border guard’s questions about Neruda’s passport, explains why his birth name is not the name by which the world knows him; but the guard instructs the couple to turn back, not allowing them to leave the country. Instead the two take refuge in a small house, joking about its fine furnishings, its large size and grand possibilities: the house cannot be a final destination. The poet and his wife, like the filmmaker telling the poet’s story, require more than the quotidian. Pablo Larrain’s Neruda (2016), a work of fact and fantasy, is dense with details, the kind of film likely to inspire years of contemplation. “Guillermo Calderon’s screenplay blends surreal perspective, political anger, simmering passion, mordant humor and celebratory sensuality in a cat-and-mouse tale that’s also a kind of dreamy fantasist’s love affair between the persecutor and the fugitive,” wrote David Rooney of Neruda in The Hollywood Reporter (May 13, 2016), following a Cannes festival screening. “The movie is complex and multilayered. Larrain maintains it has elements of film noir, cat-and-mouse chase thriller, road movie, western and black comedy,” noted Adam Feinstein, a biographer of the poet, in The Guardian (April 6, 2017).

Pablo Neruda, the poet, the senator, had been born as Ricardo Eliecer Neftali Reyes y Basoalto, to working parents in the town of Parral in Chile, a father who labored for the railway and a schoolteacher mother (she died of tuberculosis a few months after Ricardo was born); and Ricardo was educated at Temuco Boys School, and Santiago’s Instituto Pedagogico and the University of Chile, where he studied education and French. His father discouraged his literary interests but his teachers did not. Ricardo, who took his new name as a writer from the Czech poet Jan Neruda, read Russian literature and European poets and he admired Walt Whitman, and like Whitman found inspiration in the multitudes: the world is full of facets, as is each person. The poet published young, around the age of 13, in a regional daily, La Manana; and he self-published his first book, Twilight (1923), and his second book, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (1924), published by Editorial Nascimento, made him famous—although not rich; and Neruda became a diplomat representing Chile in Burma, Argentina and other nations, partly for financial reasons. A man for life and art, Pablo Neruda had two names, and he was a lover of the grand and the elemental. Neruda, a communist and a connoisseur, profound and playful, was a man of contradictions as well as complexity: he befriended poet Federico Garcia Lorca, defending the man and his reputation, and after Lorca’s political assassination Neruda devoted a conference to Lorca; and as a consul in Mexico City, Neruda approved a Chilean visa for a painter, David Alfaro Siqueiros, accused of attempting to kill the communist political theorist and leader Leon Trotsky. Pablo Neruda begins the poem “We are Many” with the declaration, “Of the many men who I am, who we are, / I can’t find a single one; they disappear among my clothes, / they’ve left for another city,” translated by Alastair Reid and featured in Neruda’s I Explain a Few Things: Selected Poems (edited by Ilan Stavans, from Farrar, Straus, 2007; page 165). The poet recognizes his intelligence and his foolishness, his courage and fear, his impulse to destroy and to create, and his insecurity and laziness in a world of books and films featuring confident heroes. Neruda as poet recognizes paradox: “While I am writing, I’m far away; / and when I come back, I’ve gone,” wondering aloud if others have as many selves as he has, and concluding, “I’m going to study so hard / that when I explain myself, / I’ll be talking geography” (page 167).

While the secluded Nerudas attempt to get used to mundane life in Pablo Larrain’s Neruda, Gael Garcia Bernal as investigator Oscar Peluchonneau enters their abandoned house searching for clues, imagining where Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is and what he is doing. Apparently, there are three-hundred policemen looking for the poet and senator, but Neruda is skeptical, even scornful, about the integrity and intensity of the search. Neruda has a certain analytical distance, the distance of an observer despite being a participant; and he wants to save the posters denouncing him for posterity. The young communist assigned as the poet’s protector, Alvaro Jara (Michael Silva), wants Neruda to take the matter more seriously (of course, the more careless, the more visible, Neruda is, the more the government may be provoked to take emphatic action). Neruda is a lover of detective fiction, of thrilling stories, so he has an appreciation for a decent search. He gives an associate thirty copies of thirty poems for distribution, which will give Neruda visibility despite his absence from the social scene; and Neruda accepts in turn the crime novels he relishes. (The poems Neruda is writing will become part of his acclaimed Canto General, 1950.) Bernal’s detective thinks that poets do not imagine the criminal mind, but that does not seem to be the case with Neruda.

“What happens if I catch him?” asked Bernal’s Peluchonneau of his civilian supervisor, a question to which Peluchonneau gets no answer, suggesting the ambiguous motive of the announced search. The poet (Gnecco) and his painter wife Delia (Mercedes Moran) are both bored, indicating a lack of perceived threat (and how much they both need a sophisticated life); and Delia wants to make love, wondering about having a child but Pablo is not enticed (he makes love with other women). Meanwhile Pablo Neruda’s first wife, Maria Haagenar Vogelzang, is invited by the police to denounce Neruda on the radio, and it seems as if Vogelzang will but she does not, to the frustration of the police. Pablo Picasso speaks in public about the persecution of his friend and fellow creative Neruda, who is shown visiting a brothel, where a drag artist serenades Neruda with a melancholy song; and the two artists, one famous, one obscure, exchange compliments; and the brothel is raided but Neruda is not captured. Bernal as investigator arrives, recalling his own youth spent in a brothel (he is propositioned but leaves); and he interrogates the serenading drag artist in the police precinct and is insulted for his dull questions.

“I demand punishment!” is the refrain of a Neruda poem that is recited by Chilean citizens: the people, through the poet, and the poet through the people, are issuing their own indictment of the social establishment for their betrayal of ideals. Yet, when a half-drunken woman, herself a worker and a communist, asks Pablo for a kiss and seems to both compliment and mock him, a privileged man whose capture would be an international incident, suggesting the perfunctory aspect of the police search, the ambiguity, or complication, of the artist’s relationship to the people is suggested. It is in the government’s interest to hunt for Neruda but not to find him, the woman communist worker says. The woman asks Pablo Neruda who will be the ideal or the standard when communism arrives, workers like herself or the more bourgeois, such as Neruda, and he says he would be the ideal.

Pablo Neruda plans to take a Chinese merchant ship without his wife; and one of his associates, a man who distributed Neruda’s poetry, is arrested and tricked into betraying Neruda’s plans, so the police know where to look for him. Neruda strolls in a seaside town, embracing a poor girl on the street, and leaving her his jacket and getting away before he can be apprehended. “To write well, one must know how to erase,” says Neruda, the crime novels he reads discarded and picked up as clues by the investigator Oscar Peluchonneau (one novel is left in the jacket Neruda gives the poor girl). Neruda’s young protector Jara can no longer tolerate Neruda’s cavalier attitude and relinquishes his post; and Pablo and Delia argue about their impending separation, argue about purpose, love, and vanity. She threatens suicide and he, rather than dissuading her, says if she does kill herself he will spend years writing poetry about her—a chilling expression of a poet’s love. After they have separated, the investigator visits Delia who tells the policeman that Peluchonneau does not understand his own position as a supporting character in a larger story; and a bearded Neruda goes south, the investigator following. (Delia was Neruda’s second wife, and she would not be his last: Neruda would marry Matilde Urrutia, a singer, after she nursed him during a late life illness.) The investigator Oscar Peluchonneau’s obsession seems both professional and personal; it has a lost, romantic quality—the detective’s mission is to locate someone whose character and principles he does not fully understand. Yet, like most policemen, he is a figure of law and force, of authority, which is not the same thing as being complete, perfect, or wise, although the confidence that authority gives can lead to confused self-recognition, to great fallibility. Does Peluchonneau ever ask, What is Neruda’s crime?

Pablo Neruda is helped by country people, the poor, but also at least one landowner who despises the government. Neruda, making his way across the Andes to Argentina, travels on horseback, tracked that way by the horse-riding investigator. Of course, Pablo Neruda survives his travels and travails with his faith in art and people. Known as the people’s poet, Neruda would win prestigious international prizes, including the Nobel Prize, before dying of heart failure in 1973 in Santiago, Chile: Neruda, one man among many, and also the exemplar of many men. In his poem “The People,” Neruda writes of a figure walking through time, over land, working with and against natural elements, turning trees into wood and wheat into bread, surviving the rise and fall and rise of civilization despite his own human frailty. “The man persisted” declares the poet (I Explain a Few Things; page 255). The human being—that man, that woman, that child—may become father, mother, friend, and lover, or remain a stranger. Who knows his struggles, her struggles, living or dead; and who sings of it? Pablo Neruda. “When it seemed he must be spent, / he was the same man over again; / there he was once more, digging the ground, / cutting cloth, but without a shirt, / he was there and he wasn’t, just as before / he had gone away and replaced himself; and since he never had cemetery / or tomb, or his name engraved / on the stone that he sweated to cut, / nobody ever knew of his arrival / and nobody knew when he died, / so only when the poor man was able / did he come back to life, unnoticed” (as translated by Alastair Reid in I Explain a Few Things; pages 255 – 257). The human being, without obvious impressive distinction, survives and because he survives so much else does. The human being, without obvious impressive distinction, may be seen as apart from civilization, but civilization is built with his labors, on his back. The human being, without obvious impressive distinction, may be man, woman, or child—and most necessary. Pablo Neruda states, “I think that those who made so many things / ought to be owners of everything. / That those who make bread ought to eat” (page 261) and “Not another man should pass except as a ruler. / Not one woman without her diadem” (page 261).

Submitted March 2018

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 27, Issue 8-9-10 / October 2023 Film Reviews   latin american cinema   pablo neruda