This sub-titled, semi-biographical film tells the story of Nobel Prize-winning (1971) Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda who denounced the Government of his day and was pursued relentlessly by the Chilean police. It was nominated for a 2017 Golden Globe Award in the category of Best Foreign Language Film.
Senator Neruda (Luis Gnecco) joined the Communist Party in the late1940s and publicly opposed President Gabriel Videla in the Chilean National Congress of 1948. Naruda taunted the authorities by deliberately leaving evidence of his whereabouts. The fascist Police Chief of the investigation branch of the Chilean Police, Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal), pursued him unsuccessfully, and Neruda escaped capture by crossing the Andes mountains into Argentina.
The film is Director Pablo Lorrain’s impressionistic account of two years in Neruda’s life, after President Videla officially banned Communism from Chile and issued a warrant for Neruda’s arrest.
Gnecco portrays Neruda as a person with an extraordinary life-style. Neruda recites his poetry to prostitutes, participates in orgies, and cross-dresses. Fantasy is used liberally by Pablo Lorrain to show the mix of Neruda’s political commitment to defending the rights of others, with exhibitionistic displays of hedonism. The film’s opening scenes provocatively turn the Government’s Senate chamber into a men’s bathroom to make the point. Another scene shows Neruda escaping from his hideout dressed as a Catholic Priest on his way to be entertained in a bordello by prostitutes and a transvestite singer. Such scenes are reminiscent of some of the films of Luis Bunuel, who used startling irreverent images of a similar kind.
Detective Oscar Peluchonneau, as Neruda’s pursuer, was told by his superiors to arrest Neruda and to humiliate him. Oscar himself is the son of a prostitute, and as the film progresses, both he and Neruda become linked to one another in a fantasy relationship that symbolically represents the conflicting forces that shaped Chilean national identity at the time. The film develops a surreal look that depicts an intense relationship between fugitive and persecutor. Oscar becomes a person of little consequence trying to cope with personal insecurity by obsessively measuring himself against Neruda as a man of poetic greatness. Both the pursuer and the pursued chase fame for different reasons, and they both desperately want to be remembered.
Photographically, the movie is very impressive. The film’s images constantly blur the dividing lines between fiction and reality. Houses and bordellos are pictured colourfully and in detail, mountainous landscapes are captured magnificently, and shadowy light is used to provide a sombre tone that mirrors drama that is unfolding elsewhere. The film is an exciting mixture of drama and parody. It blends fact and fiction to illustrate human weakness, and it dramatically celebrates the force of poetry, which gives “words to tell about our lives”.
This is a complex movie that shifts back and forth from reality to fantasy, and both lead actors (Bernal and Gnecco) capture the subtlety of the shifts very convincingly. Mercedes Moran plays Neruda’s wife, Delia, who thoroughly understands her husband, and knows he wants freedom.
This inventive movie plays originally and imaginatively with historical events. It is not a movie to judge what occurred in fact – rather, it is a film to think imaginatively about what could have happened. The film is part-fact, part-invented, and blends fact and fantasy in a fascinating way. In its final depiction of the confrontation between persecutor and fugitive in the snowy surrounds of the Andes it acquires genuine hypnotic power.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting