Two films in this year’s Borderlines festival illustrate contrasting approaches to the dramatization of real events. Denial (also reviewed here) plays it straight with a narrative which keeps close to the facts, gives us a few twists and turns along the way and then delivers the climax, the resolution we all knew was coming. It might be argued that the subject matter precludes anything more playful or ambiguous; but given that the story revolves around notions of truth and admissibility, contested concepts in the modern world, a chance may have been missed to reflect those concerns in the style of the film-making itself.
Contrast that literal mindset with Pablo Larrain’s anti-biopic Neruda. This uses an episode in the poet’s life – his outlawing as a member of the Communist Party and subsequent escape from Chile – to investigate a number of relationships: art and politics, an author and his creations, one’s personal life and commitment to a cause. As a result one both learns about Neruda himself and questions the reliability of that knowledge, a more complex and satisfactory bill of fare than Denial’s meat and two veg.
Neruda – the wonderfully lugubrious Luis Gnecco – goes underground after a clampdown on leftists by his former ally in the presidential palace. From safe house to dockside to mountain hideaway he is pursued by Peluchonneau, a detective played by Gael Garcia Bernal. But all is not as it seems. Neruda, among many other things, wrote crime novels which often turn on or culminate in a chase. Copies of these books are left behind for his pursuer to read, and it dawns on the hapless policeman that he is not a real person after all but has been created. Deftly, the film uses this conceit to reference the creative process itself. The increasingly desperate, even farcical nature of Peluchonneau’s pursuit reflects the desire of a character to change what has been planned for him, a claim to free will that is familiar to any writer of fiction. But it can also be seen in terms of his creator’s attempt to keep control of the plot – another battle between the artist and his material. The former finally prevails, in that Peluchonneau meets his end (albeit a generously scenic one), enabling the author-hero to go on his way. But the film has not finished with their relationship. The dead man rises from his coffin to marvel at the independent existence he has been granted in our minds, exactly the kind of afterlife accorded to characters who ‘stay with us’. As for Neruda, he returns against the advice of his bodyguards to collect the detective’s body and give it a proper burial. This is an elegant enacting of the author’s concern for his characters, experienced as the kind of attachment we might feel in real life, and of Neruda’s other preoccupation, his love for the people, from among whose suffering lower ranks the figure of Peluchonneau has been drawn.
Visually the film is a treat, with scenes changing rapidly from the grandeur of a parliamentary urinal to the snowfields of the Andes, from a cross between a tea dance and a brothel to the classic cars in which the poet, granting himself a stylish exit, makes good his escape. Gnecco prowls, recites, carouses, whores, schmoozes and orates with a compelling interplay of conscience and libido; Michael Silva brings both adulation and reserve to his role as a Party minder; and Francisco Reyes is magnetic as the singer Bianchi. Less compellingly, Mercedes Moran finds it hard to convince as the poet’s long-suffering wife while Bernal’s performance makes me wonder if he has a gift for comedy.
One puzzle remains. Was the manhunt for Neruda on which the film, however loosely, is based any more than a charade? There are grounds for wondering if the poet wants, or wanted, to escape: he takes risks, considers being protected a form of captivity, and debates the dangers and merits of being found, tactically in terms of the movement’s interests and as a moral or artistic gesture. On the other side, it is not clear how seriously the government seeks, or sought, his arrest. Perhaps his stature brings a kind of immunity – that happens to artists sometimes. When pressed to detain Sartre in 1968 De Gaulle is said to have replied: one does not arrest Voltaire. But the film glances forward to a less nuanced view of dissent – and a much harsher fate for dissenters. We are shown the desert camp in which less celebrated communists were interned, I suspect for the sole purpose of revealing its commandant, a young Augustin Pinochet. Fast forward twenty-five years and the military coup which he mounted against Salvadore Allende included among its victims Neruda himself. Already sick, perhaps mortally so, he fled hospital after being given an injection but succumbed within hours, subsequent investigations concluding that he had been poisoned. This was Lorca in Spain all over again. Kill your country’s poet and you murder its soul.