Pablo Larraín has started to become known to American filmgoers with stories about Chile’s history and social issues such as No and The Club. (He is soon to become much better known here for directing Jackie.) His latest Chilean focused film is Neruda about the famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and how the Cold War played out in Chile.
Besides being a famous poet, Neruda (Luis Gnecco) was also a politician in post-war Chile. As a Communist member of the Senate, he was disappointed when the president (who came to power with the help of the Communists) made connections with the United States. After denouncing the president, Neruda was impeached and ordered arrested. When he and his wife, painter Deia del Carril (Mercedes Morán) go into hiding, Police Prefect Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) sets off in pursuit. The cat and mouse chase becomes increasingly more dangerous for Neruda, but he toys with Peluchonneau, leaving clues along the way. At the same time, Neruda is seeing the life of the common people and writes much of Canto General, his famed volume of poetry. In Europe his story becomes the focus of people like Picasso who see him as an example of the oppression of the arts.
Americans often have a monolithic view of Communism. We think of the Soviets and Chinese. But South America has had a long history of Communism that from time to time comes to power in various countries. They have also had right-wing governments that have repressed the Communists. Neruda reminds us that many of the intellectual elite favored Communism, especially during the early years of the Cold War. Neruda was essentially a country club Communist. He was upper class, educated, well known. He may have thought his position would provide him safety, but it did not. The world of workers he saw while avoiding the police and trying to escape Chile was much different that the comfortable life he had led. Yet there is no “aha” moment of transformation either for him or for Peluchonneau.
I expect this film probably plays better in Chile than in America. Chileans would have a much better understanding of the political swings of their history and how this film speaks not only of what happened at that time, but how it may reflect more recent events. But Larraín is a master of connecting us with a given time and social zeitgeist. While I haven’t seen Jackie yet, I expect that will prove the case in that film as well. For those who see that and find his work interesting, Neruda can serve as a good introduction to his broader work.
Neruda is Chile’s official entry for Oscar consideration.
Photos courtesy of The Orchard.