Guest: Brendan Lucas - "NERUDA (2016): Where The Real Danger Truly Lies" / by Samuel B. Prime

Editor's NoteBrendan Lucas - who earlier wrote a humorous essay on THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT (2016) - returns with a review for the other Pablo Larrain movie, NERUDA, that will be in NYC & LA theaters on 12/16/16

- Samuel B. Prime, Founder

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In NERUDA (2016), Pablo Larrain’s twist on the expressionistic biopic, Luis Gnecco portrays Pablo Neruda - earthy and outspoken, enjoying international acclaim as a poet and as a Chilean Communist senator amid an ascendant left in the late 1940s. Given a platform to espouse his poetic-political beliefs, he is free to trade barbs with fellow politicians, to inveigh and to indulge as both a man of the people and a man of appetites. However, when a reversal in the González government effectively outlaws the Communist Party, the celebrated poet is unwittingly branded a subversive and is forced to go underground in order to evade arrest while remaining true to his ideals.

Oblivious to his incriminatingly outsized personality, the poet is dependent on his circle of clandestine partisan allies, including his common-law partner, the mature and aristocratic Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), who attempts to reign in the passionate artist as much for his physical well-being as the longevity of his voice.

Gael García Bernal plays Oscar Peluchonneau, a driven ex-police inspector hired to track the fugitive Neruda.  His name cribbed from a former chief of national police, he claims to be the illegitimate child of a cop and a sex worker. Through voiceover, he narrates his own version of the chase in clumsily heroic prose, a combination of potboiler detective fiction and political slurs.  Beautiful yet blockheaded, dangerous and stunted, Peluchonneau is a distillation of the nascent Chilean Fascist Imaginary, a fictive character that embodies a fundamental emotional lack and the absence of any positive imagination that characterizes the revolutionary reactionary. Like his character in Larrain’s earlier film No (2012) set amid the 1988 Chilean Referendum, Gael plays a narratively expedient composite character, useful for condensing several historical unknowns into a simplified cogent force, allowing the audience to struggle openly with a larger subject and resist identification with individual personality. 

The purposeful employment of jump cuts and the discontinuity of the actors and camera in space create a wonderful sense of disorientation against the accomplished art direction and costuming given to late-40s Chile. Larrain’s extradiagetic nod to a pre-Coup d’Etat Augusto Pinochet, briefly depicted running a political prison camp in the Atacama, serves as winking thematic coda to the rest of the director’s body of work, which until his Kennedy biopic Jackie (2016) has been a loosely continuous cinematic saga of 20th Century Chilean history and its cyclical tension between tenuous leftist coalitions and popular authoritarian reaction. The film’s powerful climax amid the snowy Andean wilds, far from the baroque decay and intimate avant-garde haunts of urban Santiago, demonstrates the painful beauty and rugged diversity of the Chilean landscape, and the fraught political history that is its home.

Larrain’s film is a fascinating portrayal of the way that we construct backstories and narratives for our adversaries. For the title character’s creative mind in overdrive, this personification of the unseen enemy in the character of Peluchonneau, and the elaborate cat-and-mouse game the author constructs for him, may seem a case of an artist privileging fantasy over the harsh realities of life. Yet NERUDA is instructive for an audience living in a political sphere mediated by the Internet, where complete strangers in website ‘Comments’ sections can become mortal rivals based not only on difference of ideological opinion, but on assumed moral deficiencies stemming from what we perceive their cumulative life experiences to be. However, as NERUDA posits, we may become so attached to this fictional portrayal of our adversaries that, convinced of our cleverness, we may lose track of precisely what defines real danger.

- Brendan Lucas