By: T. Olajide
Neruda is a film on the life of the late and great Chilean poet, Pablo Nerdua (Luis Neruda). Director Pablo Larrain described the film as a ‘false biopic’ a sentiment that I concur with. The film is a fantastic re-imagination of the peaks and pits of Neruda’s exceptional life as a politician, a poet and enemy of the state.
Set in 1948, when the Cold War gripped Chile the narrative explores how Neruda and his loyalists interpreted communism. As the plot progressed it became clear that at the time, communism was a shiny new toy for the bourgeoisie (Neruda and his wife, Argentine painter Delia del Carril) and the last glimmer of hope for others (his penniless supporters). Although this was not overtly unpacked it was the overarching element of the film, and the aspect of the narrative that lingered for longer.
Neruda attempts to flee Chile, after upsetting the powers that be by accusing the government of betraying the Communist Party. President Gonzalez Videla enlists the expertise of zealous Police Prefect Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal), who is relentless in his pursuit of Senator Neruda.
Larrain has done an incredible job of critically assessing the legitimacy of communism and makes a salient point on the impact of imperialism in Chile. In one scene, Neruda enjoys a night with his friends and lovers of his art form. He is approached by a woman, who asks for Neruda to sign her book and to kiss her. He obliges her request, but she lingers at the table and questions the legitimacy of his ordeal with the government. This scene struck me; not only did this woman, a cleaner, challenge him for romanticising the ordeals of the working-class but also asked him whether Communism would make the playing field equal in the interest of the rich or the poor.
For many of us, discourse on privilege is nothing new — but nuanced dialogue on socio-economic disparity and the glorification of financial hardship is rarely touched upon, especially when the world’s superpowers (USA and UK) are not the focal point of the conversation. Although his psychological battle with Peluchonneau was celebrated by the common people, it often seemed that the very people he was on the run for were merely pawns in his elaborate game of artistic re-birth.
Neruda was a man of fantastic proportions — he had no restraint, and his actions often hurt others. Case in point, Peluchonneau, who meets a tragic end in a desperate attempt to end Neruda. His wife, del Carril, could have been used as a scape goat by the police if not for her grit.
Guillermo Calderon’s narrative is steeped in allegorical critique of the bourgeoisie and the state of global governance in the 40’s. The plot departs from the traditional equilibrium — disequilibrium — equilibrium format and takes an organic shape of its own, at the end of the film we are left to come to our conclusions on Neruda — should he have been captured? Did the wild goose chase benefit him in any way? What did we make of communism (through Neruda’s lens and through the lens of the people)? Quite often we are given films which don’t give us the agency to think, and this film defied that norm.
The film also gave viewers many visual delights; the colour palette of the film often mirrored characters from scene to scene. Frames are strategically used to tell us more about characters or underpinning motifs, for instance, in a scene where Neruda visits the Senate President the frame is opulent and decadent which speaks to the suffocating power of the bourgeoisie on communists. What was more interesting about this scene was that Neruda melded in seamlessly, whilst watching I asked myself, what can be said of a communist who effortlessly radiates capitalist ideals of pomp and systemic bargaining power?
My verdict on Neruda is that it is a truly exceptional critique of complex socio-economic issues which still subsist in contemporary society. It is a unique but intelligent approach to a biographical piece. The film is fulfilling — you don’t leave the theatre feeling as if you wanted more or less.
NERUDA is in UK cinemas 7 April