By William Alexander Yankes
For those unfamiliar, Chile has fielded two Nobel laureates in literature. Poet Gabriela Mistral was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1945. Pablo Neruda, born in 1904, took the Swedish laurel home in 1971. But just who was this Neruda whose body of work has made his name immortal?
His birth name was Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basualto. Because he admired the Czech poet Jan Neruda, he adopted his surname, taking it in a break with his father, a railroad worker who thought him less of a man for his pursuit of poetry and literature. He was born and raised in Chile’s south, in the heart of an indigenous region where the invasion of foreign Spanish colonizers had been most fiercely resisted.
There, a millennial Mapuche cosmology sought to preserve an equilibrium between man and the natural world with its rivers and forests and rain and sea. This harmony between man and nature inspired Neruda, who took his poetry to the nature-severed and indigenous xenophobic capital city of Santiago.
Neruda (featuring Luis Gnecco in the title role), while entertaining, leaves you wanting. The film omits significant aspects of Chile’s political history and, as a consequence, precludes audiences from appreciating the depth and significance of the bard’s poetry. Neruda’s contact with the native Mapuche in the film offers no hint of his profound regard for them. Directed by Pablo Larraín (No, 2013), an auteur who also helmed the movie Jackie, a film about Jacqueline Kennedy running concurrently with Neruda in U.S. theaters.
In Neruda, Larraín devotes much time to “Poem Twenty.” “Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche (Tonight I can write the saddest poems)” from Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada, (Twenty Love Poems and a Desperate Song) a poem from Neruda’s romantic period that also figures prominently in Michael Radford’s Il Postino (1995). Based on the Chilean novel El cartero (The Postman) by Antonio Skármeta, the film also explored Neruda’s life. Larraín, however, chose to set, time and again, the poet’s recital of what is arguably his most renowned love poem within the unseemly confines of the local brothel.
If not a deliberate attempt to taint the poet’s reputation, the device is an obvious ploy to pad the box office by luring audiences with nudity and sexual innuendo. Neruda aficionados and scholars will be also disappointed that Larraín makes only a passing allusion to the poet’s surrealist phase. To his credit, the director does include a scene in which Neruda recites lines from “Los enemigos (the enemies),” as a poetic political salvo hurled at his nemesis, the president of Chile, in the pages of Canto general, also considered a masterwork of epic poetry.
Larraín depicts Neruda during his tenure as a Senator and representative of the Communist party in a heated polemical exchange with right-wing politician Arturo Alessandri, a former President of the Republic, later elected president of the Chilean Senate. In response to Neruda’s open defiance of censorship imposed on his poetry of dissent by President Gabriel González Videla, whom he helped to get elected. González Videla orders the police chief to chase after the fugitive Neruda, who escapes capture by crossing the Andes mountain range smuggling his manuscript for Canto general out of the country on horseback. He arrives as an exile in Paris where Picasso introduces him to society.
Neither the police chief nor Neruda are convincing. They both seem to lack a belief in their respective roles, each challenged by their own sketchily developed identities. There is a lack of passion in their performances that flows to them from the director himself.
The music, by Federico Jusid, is heavily weighted in favor of classical compositions, appropriate at particular moments but otherwise contrived and manipulative, forcing emotions to compensate for the limits of the screenplay. The absence of traditional Chilean music throughout the film’s entire length is a glaringly lost opportunity. Camera angles are mostly close-ups or mid-range. There is no tantalizing shot to establish Chile’s vast panorama of urban and rural contrasts.
The viewer is not permitted to appreciate the urban surroundings haunted by the past that resounds with political significance. Nor is he allowed to appreciate the sweep of the Andes among the film’s exteriors. There is no panning shot in a country known for its astounding natural beauty. Larraín explained that the color purple that predominates blends the blue of the sky and the sea with the red of the poet’s Communist orientation.
In conceiving a feature film about the world’s most widely read poet of love, nature and politics, Larraín said he wanted to create a “film noir, a road film, a western.” When asked, Why Neruda? Larraín replied, “Neruda is everywhere, in the water, in the air…” Perhaps Neruda was so occupied being in all places that his presence in the film could never have amounted to more than the cameo to which it is reduced by the director.
Rather than addressing motives and vision which birth Neruda’s political poetry and his decisions with respect to embracing an active role in society as a poet of conscience, Larraín focuses on the police investigator and his chase. He reduces a monumental concept, transforming its potential into a cursory footnote. The police chief is played by Gael García Bernal, an internationally recognized actor. Neruda, on the other hand, is portrayed by someone few may know in the international arena.
In the film, Neruda turns to a well-meaning but over-protective servant who makes him feel smothered: “Aprende a respetarme, huevón!” (Learn to respect me, you jerk!). It seemed (and it hurts to write this) that the actor playing Neruda was addressing the film’s director.
This is a flashy film. It’s an oligarch’s view of an extraordinary man from a less privileged sector of society who rose to fame an attained currency and exerted inordinate power by the sheer force of his intellectual and artistic gifts, while bypassing membership in the exclusive clubs reserved for the moneyed class. Undoubtedly, Larraín did not have the privilege of knowing poverty first-hand.
In this sense, the director appears ill-equipped to show the poet’s truest motivation in order to depict it from the perspective of the man who lived it. Yet, he does give us three scenes loaded with directorial empathy when Neruda hugs a hungry girl on the street to comfort her, draping her with his expensive jacket when he had no money to give her. At a brothel, a drag queen engages Neruda in a heartfelt exchange. The same transgender artist delivers an emotive soliloquy as the police chief listens to her.
But then we leave Neruda out of the picture and the film ends with the police investigator stealing the spotlight and the lead as a fictionalized character created by the Neruda of the movie.
“After living it, dreaming it, writing it, I still don’t know who Neruda was. I’m paralyzed by Neruda.” Larraín admitted.
The film fails to tell us about Neruda the poet and the man with any degree of satisfaction. It is a pleasant movie, with appealing cinematography but conceptually out of focus. It seems the director’s ego, his flirtation with his own fiction, stands at the forefront of a surrealist exercise that lacks conviction.
By taking on such an ambitious project, Larraín squandered his chance to grasp and effectively communicate the deeply indigenous sources of the poet’s inspiration, as well as the relevance and enormity of Pablo Neruda’s contribution to humanity.