Merging fact and invention in biopics is never easy. What was actualised and what was imagined will be open to debate. So what better way to craft out a story, and particularly a life of poet, but to give it near full poetic license. That is obviously what the makers of Neruda have done and for the most part it works really well.
Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto was a Chilean politician and poet making his mark beginning in the 1920s. He was better known throughout his life as Pablo Neruda his writing pseudonym derived from the Czech poet Jan Neruda. He started writing poetry when was ten and was heralded by the Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez as “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language.” The American literary critic Harold Bloom selected Neruda as one of the 26 writers central to the “Western Tradition” in his book The Western Canon. Neruda would go to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. He was a close adviser to Chile’s socialist President Salvador Allende who was killed in an American and British aided coup that put in power the fascist dictator general Augusto Pinochet.
Shot in black and white Neruda includes funny little hitches that add to its mock authenticity with jumps in cutting and obvious rear projections used when cars are driving. Giving our slick blue screen and CGI world this is an amusing nod back to an earlier era. Actual timelines are also played with fast and easy.
As a confirmed communist Neruda was an outspoken senate member who was critical of the government of the time accusing it of abandoning communist ideals to appease the US. When President González Videla outlawed communism in Chile in 1948, a warrant was issued for Neruda’s arrest.
And so the film focuses on the fleeing poet on the run and his nemesis the purely fictional detective Oscar Peluchoneau who is trying to capture him. Peluchoneau, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, may on the face of it just seem a shambolic and ridiculous stock character but as he is a imaginary figure narrating a story where he does not know whether ‘the hero or the supporting actor’. In one part of the movie the absurd and disingenuous is amusingly highlighted as Peluchoneau is told by the woman who appears to be Neruda’s wife that he does not actually exist and just a creation of Neruda to romanticise his escape from Chile.
And so we see Neruda being hidden by friends, acquaintances and admirers. He is portrayed as a man who could move people with his words and actions, stand up for the poor and disadvantaged and against fascists but also a decadent champagne socialist dressing in drag at lavish parties or cavorting with naked nymphs.
The chase aspect is given added drama as Neruda is pursued by Peluchoneau through some larger than life scenarios taking in some spectacular landscapes along the way. There are some funny narrow escapes when Neruda has to resort to gimmicks of the farce comedy variety.
Director Pablo Larrain who recently directed Jackie, the biopic of Jackie Kennedy, returns to focusing on his home country with Neruda. It is not an easy film to follow at the beginning and to make sense of until you grasp the meta structure and can then wallow and relax in what is a clever and endearing film. As a result there might be bits that you missed first time round that you would catch on subsequent viewings.
Neruda is in UK cinemas on 7 April 2017
Pablo Larrain movies
On the 11th of September 1973, General Augusto Pinochet, Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean Army, assumed power in a military coup d’état, overthrowing the democratically elected Unidad Popular government of Chilean president, Salvador Allende.
The coup d’état was coordinated by those fearful of Allende’s socialist ideals. Their alternative was a bloody dictatorship pushed by economic interests and fascist ideology. Under Pinochet’s rule, some 3,200 people were murdered and 38,000 cases of torture are said to have occurred.
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