A Poet and his Shadow and a Film Neruda: a Film by Pablo Larrain

Subho Maitro

Subho Maitro

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To make a film on a famous poet is not easy. Once you are into the idea, what bug you is that what will you portray – the life of the poet or his art? The opus created by a person and his life is never same. Especially when you are making a film on a poet like Neruda who is famous and led a colourful life, there is an allure of getting into romanticizing it. Here Pablo Larrain the Director of the film has skillfully got out of those temptations and made a fiction which stands on its own narrative.

The story is of Neruda’s clandestine flight from Chile. Oscar Peluchoneau, a police officer pursues him throughout his underground stay at Chile and his flight through the mountains of Andes to Argentina. The narrative is built like a noire movie. There is suspense of what is going to happen, in the backdrop of Videla’s rule and persecution of the leftist and communist opposition. Neruda is a senator who relentlessly speaks against him. And the threat of Neruda’s arrest is imminent. In the midst of this Communist party of Chile is shown trying to hide Neruda inside Chile to avert the arrest and trying to get him out of the country. The story starts with the voice of the police spy Oskar Peluchoneau. We see him narrating the official line about Neruda. We see Neruda enjoying bourgeois life, reading poems enjoying wine and women. We are not sure it is possible or not as we see he is living a charmed life underground. Which Neruda is true, the voice makes us suspicious.

We see the officer Oskar trying to gather clues and find out where Neruda is hiding. But it  seems a cat and mouse game. Always he misses him by a whisker. And he finds a book waiting for him. They are pulp novels. Are they some kind of clues? We can apprehend that Neruda is playing some psychological game with this young officer.

When Neruda leaves for Andes and his wife is left back in Chile. Oskar finds her out. And here the story changes. We become unsure which character exists and which not. The unreal and fictive merged in true Latin American fashion. Is he someone really exists or is he a figment of poet’s imagination? The hunter and the hunted is changing position. Who actually needs whom, the question starts pouring inside the viewers mind.

The film asks about the existence of police state? the persecution becomes real with the existence of persecuted. Here Neruda is one central figure who justifies the glamorous hunt. But what about the others – the nameless, faceless people getting send to jail, in far off camps? They are common people, they can be erased silently from the history. Interestingly we see Pinochet as young officer of one such camp.

The whole narrative is about power and how people can play around it. Neruda though fights against the high and mighty, his strong opposition and poetic genius made him one of them the man with power, though on the opposite side of the rightist oppressors. So at the end when the specter of the dead officer says ‘Say my name, say my name,’ while Neruda is describing at Paris about his flight we understand the hopelessness of an individual. He may have been chasing the famous poet, but the poet still has the voice. While he the oppressor is nothing but a shadow.

Larrain strongly points to the existential contradictions. He never takes a side in this film. Where our efforts stand in a situation of political struggle? A working class woman asks Neruda, after the revolution how people will live – like you or like me? Neruda answers back no everybody will live like me, eat in the bed and fuck in the kitchen. The woman says long live revolution, but we don’t see much conviction.

The matured handling of character is something to be praised in this film. Neruda is not a hero-fugitive. Rather it seems inevitable flight, a flight from his self and the political role he has assumed. His poetic self and political self is in crisis too. This dichotomy we know is real. It was in Picasso, Sartre and many others of their generation. On one side there is their wish to be part of historic reality of communist revolution. On the other their artistic self was getting confronted by the regimentation of the leftists and by the bureaucratic attitude of the leaders. Larrain keeps this divide very clear. Neither he tries to simplify the problem as of bourgeois degeneration of the artists, nor does he eulogize as this is something heroic. The end of the film keeps this divide open and ongoing.

This complex subject has been dealt with smooth camerawork and editing. A lot of poetry has been used, as well as dialogues which are lines of poetry. These sections have wonderful jump cuts which creates a lyrical pattern. The tempo of the film is kept high to suite the noirish mood. The visual-scape of the film also has layers of element. While the story movies the visual nourish pattern keeps tottering when the reality of the Chile is juxtaposed. Or the flight through Andes has the stark and bleak look of that rough terrain. The film at one level puts forward a thriller while mocks the total incongruity of that genre. Gael Garcia Bernal’s name has to be taken, the role of the policeman Oskar Peluchoneau seems written for him. The unrealistic, absurd, incongruous character of that policeman was tough to play. He plays the role with élan. The viewers’ emotional response shows how well an actor he is, from antipathy to empathy the whole journey through this little sniffer like character was possible for his acting.

It is strange in a film named Neruda, a biopic, changes to something different. And Neruda as a character slowly fades and a fictive person gets highlighted. It reminded me of another film, Il Postino or the postman. It seems destiny of the people’s poet whenever someone tries to make film centering round him, other voices gets heard. Isn’t it just like his poems?








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