There was once a time when being an outspoken Stalinist didn’t automatically qualify you as an anti-social psychopath. Living through the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and watching Russia’s glorious march on Nazi Germany was enough to earn the bloodthirsty Soviet strongman some serious street cred amongst the international left, and even sensitive South American poets like Pablo Neruda rallied to Stalin’s cause without serious damage to their reputations. Heck, some even killed for him, and Neruda’s name has never been fully cleared of some shady associations with the attempt at the life of Stalin’s nemesis, Leon Trotsky, in Mexico City.
But as the cold war ramped up in the years after World War II, political associations did start to get a little sticky, and even Neruda found himself caught up in an elaborate political crucifixion that had him on the lamb from Chilean government authorities for the better part of two years. It’s a pretty wacky chapter in Latin American history that has served as fodder for Pablo Larraín’s latest cinematic concoction, Neruda, starring Gael García Bernal. Though despite the film’s title, GGB actually isn’t playing Pablo Neruda, but rather a political hatchet man hired by the Chilean president to track down the dissident poet.
As the story goes, Neruda had become active in Chilean politics in the mid-1940s and was eventually recruited as campaign manager for the so-called Radical Party’s presidential candidate Gabriel González Videla. Videla, however, proved to be a grade-A, two-faced political rat and after winning the presidency began to persecute the very Communist party that had so fervently supported his candidacy. After speaking out against the violent suppression of a labor uprising, Neruda officially earned himself a price on his head and the poet spent 18 months on a sort of underground railroad before stealing across the Argentine border on horseback (yes, it was that glorious.)
But Neruda isn’t actually about all of these heroic anecdotes attributed to the poet-politician, but rather a highly imaginative retelling of the cat-and-mouse game that unfolded between Neruda and his pursuer. Featuring all of the hallmarks of Larraín’s unique filmography, including powerful period visuals and a wry sense of humor, Neruda seems to be playing with the very idea of a biopic, showing García Bernal’s Oscar Peluchoneau as he fights to be protagonist of his own story.
It seems to be an almost Borgesian take on the political thriller, with plenty of winks and meta-fictional labyrinths embedded within the otherwise straight-forward cat-and-mouse narrative. We can only hope this is a taste of things to come as Larraín preps for his upcoming Darren Aronofsky-produced Hollywood debut, Jackie. It may, after all, be the last Spanish-language feature we see from Larraín for quite a while.
Neruda had its world premiere at this year’s edition of the Cannes Film Festival.