Neruda (Pablo Larraín, Chile/Argentina/France/Spain/USA, 2016)

Blogpost, Film education, Film reviews, Latin American cinema, Uncategorized

There are numerous pleasures to be had watching Neruda, including some fantastic performances, an excellent script and some stunning cinematography. Up until now, I have basically enjoyed all of Pablo Larraín’s films (of those that I have seen)… but Neruda seems to function on a whole different level.

For this post, though, I am going to limit myself only to a few comments, which will focus primarily on a key moment that takes place towards the end of the film (although I would not consider anything that I am going to say as really constituting a spoiler).

The film is about the impeachment and then the flight into exile from Chile of the poet and politician Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco). In this process, Neruda comes to be pursued by Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), a policeman who may or may not be a figure of Neruda’s imagination.

After various attempts to leave Chile, the film ends with Neruda leaving for the south of the country with Peluchonneau in pursuit. There follows a continuation and a culmination of the cat-and-mouse game that has begun between the two – even though Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), the then-wife of Neruda, has told Peluchonneau before he leaves for the south that he is simply a fictional construct of Neruda’s mind.

I mention this because the journey south constitutes an important trope in Latin American fiction, especially in the writing of Jorge Luis Borges, a writer who himself was obsessed with detective fiction, as well as with a sort of postmodern blurring between fantasy and reality (about which more later). Indeed, the spirit of Borges seems to haunt Neruda on many levels, even though the film is about the Chilean poet and not the Argentine poet and short story writer.

Now, you will have to forgive my poor memory and the fact that I seem not to be able to find a ready answer to the identity of the author on the usual search engines, but I remember many years ago reading an essay about Borges, in which the journey south was understood to signify the journey away from reality and into fiction.

For many years, I have wondered what this really means: why does a journey south constitute a journey into fiction? It is only while watching Larraín’s film that I feel that I can make some sense of this idea – as Peluchonneau heads south in pursuit of Neruda.

For, hoping not to say anything too idiotic, in Larraín’s film we get a sense of how Latin America is defined by ‘southernness’ as a counter to its relationship to the American (or what we refer to nowadays as the global) north. That is, Chile under Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro) was a country that ended up cementing ties with and economic dependency on the north. If to be Latin American was to be anything, then, it was to be not-northern, i.e. to be southern. And so the journey to the south was to be the journey into the ‘real’ Latin America, here Chile.

But what does this journey south mean?

Neruda declares that the chase that we are to see, as Peluchonneau follows him south, will be salvaje, or wild. And, indeed, in contradistinction to the the ordered space of the city (Santiago) that we see in much of the film, the south is ‘wild’ – defined by snow, coldness, trees and other natural phenomena.

(Perhaps this appeal to the salvaje thus also helps us to understand the relevance of this term as ‘southern’ – or as non-northern – in films like Relatos salvajes/Wild Tales, Damián Szifrón, Argentina/Spain, 2014, and La región salvaje/The Untamed, Amat Escalante, Mexico/Denmark/France/Germany/Norway/Switzerland, 2016 – even if a wilful promotion of ‘wildness’ runs the risk of being deliberately ‘exotic’ for the purposes of pleasing western audiences.)

If the journey south is also a journey into ‘fiction,’ then what does this journey south mean when it is also a journey into the wilderness?

I shall propose that the link between ‘fiction’ and ‘wilderness’ can be understood as follows. The global north is defined by a history of dryness, reason, order and control. In short, then, it is a history of quantification and science, one that is determined not by things like fiction, but by facts, which are hard, permanent and immutable.

If the history of Empire in the twentieth century is a history of the imposition of the hard, and the imposition of the idea that this hardness is permanent and unchanging, then in order to resist this, one must embrace the soft, the ephemeral and the mutable. One must reject ‘science’ and ‘facts’ and instead embrace fiction.

By this rationale, no wonder it is that the Latin American ‘boom’ authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes (with Borges coming earlier still) basically invented postmodernism some 20 years before Robert Venturi and his colleagues started writing about the term in relation to architecture in Learning from Las Vegas (1972), and some 25 years before Jean-François Lyotard spoke of The Postmodern Condition (1979) in France.

That is, if the postmodern is a sort of aesthetic blend between fact and fiction – such that the two become hard to tell apart – when it is written about as an oppositional movement in the global north, it is conversely a kind of political reality in Latin America, where to create an identity that rejects the north, and an identity that therefore ‘heads south’ is precisely to create self-conscious works that blur fiction and history, fantasy and reality, as per the deeply political rejection of the north and its values, which increasingly come to be imposed upon a country like Chile as it heads towards the ‘rational’ extermination of dissidents under Augusto Pinochet.

As Neruda and Peluchonneau head south, then, fiction and history begin to blur, as the ‘chaos’ and ‘insanity’ of the wilderness come to take over from the order and ‘sanity’ of the city. Life becomes art here, as opposed to life as business – just as reality when not controlled takes on a poetic dimension, in that things grow in unexpected directions, rather than in readily established, preordained directions (poiesis, meaning ‘making’ or ‘formation’).

(Perhaps it is no coincidence that a writer like Paul Auster, also a postmodernist of sorts, is himself named after the south, auster being the term for south from which the austral, as in Australia, takes its name.)

There is probably more to say about the ‘south’ and its links also to ideas like communism (a common thread in Neruda), animal logics, and the ethos of connection and change as opposed to that of separation and control.

Nonetheless, this foray into how the Chilean south plays a political role in Neruda serves not just to help us to understand an aspect of Larraín’s film – namely that in its blurring of fiction and history and in its journey south in a rejection of the ‘north’ – but also perhaps to understand Latin America more generally, an understanding that we can reach through one of Neruda‘s clear cinematic intertexts.

For as Neruda heads south, Peluchonneau (who stands for the rigid law) is as mentioned told that he is a fictional character by del Carril. However, this scene is not the first time that Gael García Bernal and Mercedes Morán have interacted in cinema.

Indeed, Morán played García Bernal’s mother in the earlier Diarios de motocicleta/Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles, Argentina/USA/Chile/Peru/Brazil/UK/Germany/France, 2004), a film that involves a young Ernesto Guevara heading north from Argentina on his way to realising the pernicious effects of the north on Latin America, and thus taking part in various independence struggles as he transitions from Ernesto to ‘Che’ Guevara.

In particular, that film involves a sequence as Ernesto and best friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) cross Lake Temuco from Argentina and into Chile. “Chile!” Alberto shouts as they make the journey. “¡Que viva, Chile, bo!”

Cut to sequences of Alberto and Ernesto in the Andes as they ride on their titular motorcycle, which eventually breaks down, meaning that they have to push it across the border (with Ernesto and Alberto getting into an argument as the latter accuses the former of being a Yankee stoolie as he will travel to Miami to buy American nickers for his girlfriend – a journey that, needless to say, Ernesto never completes).

The iconography of these moments is repeated with some exactitude in Larraín’s film, as Neruda crosses a lake (not identified as Temuco) in his journey towards exile (an exile that will then be ‘documented’ in Michael Radford’s film, Il Postino, Italy/France/Belgium, 1994) – and as Peluchonneau pursues them on a motorbike that eventually breaks down, and which he pushes, before finally ending up travelling through the snowy Andes on foot. Larraín’s film also involves a kind of joyful shouting out at the vast expanses that surround Neruda and Peluchonneau, much as Alberto shouts out in Salles’ film.

It is not simply that Neruda offers a reversal of The Motorcycle Diaries, in that Neruda and Peluchonneau are heading south while Ernesto and Alberto are heading north. Indeed, such a comparison would only reaffirm the australity/southernness of Latin/South America: Neruda heads south to escape the north, while it is only by going north that Ernesto becomes aware of what it means to be from the south.

More than this, though, is the idea that if the journey south is a journey into fiction, and if García Bernal is indelibly associated with Guevara (whom he has played on several occasions), then it is not simply that Peluchonneau discovers that he is a fictional character, but that Guevara might well be one, too.

This is not a denial of the reality of Che Guevara. But hopefully what we can gain from this analysis is that the creation of an independent Latin America involves the creation of an identity that in some senses does not exist yet, and which being non-existent is therefore in some senses fictional. This is also reflected in the transition of Ernesto Guevara (a real person) into Che Guevara (an icon). It is not that one is more real than the other, but that part and parcel of Latin American independence involves the rejection of a strict insistence on a single and unified identity, like that demanded of the north as people who do not ‘fit’ with the dominant vision of what Chile is supposed to be are forced into exile.

The ability to invent one’s own identity – to create a Latin American identity rather than to have Latin American identity imposed by the north – and perhaps even to challenge the very notion of identity, is therefore part of the political struggle involved in independence. No wonder that Neruda, too, switches identities several times, especially between Neruda and Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, his birth name.

This switching between fiction and reality is also reflected in Larraín’s editing and mise-en-scène: the film repeatedly shows scenes that cut between different takes, creating not jump cuts exactly, but rather a sense that many different versions of each scene exist and that they are all, therefore, somehow real (rather than there being one final and ‘true’ cut of a scene or of the film more generally).

This is also reflected in how the film involves various scenes that cut between different locations, even as the characters continue to talk as if no time had elapsed and no jump in location had taken place. Finally, it is also reflected in Larraín’s insistent use of rear projection, especially during travel sequences involving cars and motorbikes: space is not single and unified, but multiple and full of ambiguity.

This rejection of a unified space and time is also a rejection of the conception of the world imposed by the north. ‘We shall eat in the bedroom and fornicate in the kitchen,’ says Neruda (or words to that effect) to a female fan in a restaurant in Santiago. That is, he will not do what he is supposed to do in spaces the meaning of which and the things to do in which are determined from without. We can do whatever we want in whatever space we want and even to be dirty (‘improper’) is to reject the northern notion of cleanliness (in French propre), which in turn is tied not to the connection of spaces and wilderness but to the separating off of spaces in the form of property.

In this way, Larraín’s film counters the official history of Neruda by blurring history with fiction – not least because to write official history, or to believe that there can be an official history, is not a southern but a north American concept. Perhaps this also helps us to understand the disruption of history that Larraín has undertaken in both Jackie (Chile/France/USA/Hong Kong, 2016) and No (Chile/France/Mexico/USA, 2012), as well as the way in which fiction influences reality in a film like Tony Manero (Chile/Brazil, 2008).

By showing us a kind of reversal of The Motorcycle Diaries, Larraín’s film nonetheless shows us how being southern, heading south, and rejecting the fixed world of fact, preferring instead to embrace the malleable world of fiction mixed with fact, is a political gesture that aims to establish something like a Latin American identity, or non-identity, and to elude control/to achieve independence in an era when a country like Chile was under the ongoing control of the north and split between those factors within the country that sought control through violence (à la Pinochet) and those that sought freedom from control.

It is not that Larraín’s film does not chart some of the contradictions of the educated and well-travelled poet who nonetheless somehow connects with ‘the people.’ Nonetheless, as Larraín blurs fiction and history in his playful and beautiful (re?)telling of Latin America’s past, he does this not so much to know the future of Latin America in general and perhaps Chile in particular, but in order to create a future that remains a future precisely because it is not known and perhaps not knowable (for to know the future is to destroy the future, since to render the future as in effect having already happened is to make the future like the past, thereby depriving it of its very futurity).

If anyone knows the name of the writer on Borges who discusses the role of the south and fiction in his stories, then do please let me know. Otherwise, I hope that this blog has given something to think about in relation to Larraín’s film. It is really thought-provoking and well worth watching.

7 thoughts on “Neruda (Pablo Larraín, Chile/Argentina/France/Spain/USA, 2016)

  1. Hi — I was very interested to read your comments about the cultural connotation of “south” in Latin American fiction, including Borges. I’m a geographer in British Columbia, and I’ve been doing some research on the metaphorical associations of “north” in Canadian culture (and to some extent, “west” in the US), especially in terms of image-making for political campaigns. (For example, our present Prime Minister’s father Pierre Trudeau, who was nicknamed “The Northern Magus” and was frequently photographed paddling a canoe or walking in the snow.) So I was fascinated to hear that there’s also a pattern in South America, of having fantastic and mystical things happen as you get closer to the pole. I’m hoping to take some time in the new year, once the end-of-term rush clears up, to do some literature searches in the hope of locating that article you recall seeing. For now, I did find a reference to the specific Borges story that might help narrow the search down a bit. It’s in Endnote 21 of this paper by Di Stefano — which is from 2018 so it can’t be the one that you read earlier (and the one it mentions is from 2016). But maybe those authors have also read it and have either cited it in other publications, or might remember it if you dropped them a line.

    You’ve inspired me to take a look at the work of Pablo Neruda and see what he says about far southern environments, and there are some intriguing parallels with the BC coast — this suggests a new area to read up on. Thanks very much!

  2. Hope you enjoyed the holidays (and didn’t get caught in the snowstorm that’s hitting BC now). I was able to get a copy of the earlier 2014 film about Neruda — I wonder if the writer-director, Manuel Basoalto, might be a relative of the poet?

    I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to see it (doesn’t seem to be as available via iTunes and other services) — but it’s interesting to compare the movies. It seems to be a more standard type of biopic, compared with Larrain’s playful, ironic approach. I noticed a few broad similarities though. Both movies take Neruda’s time on the run in 1948-49 as their focus – Basoalto even more so, since he seems to be attempting to dramatize Neruda’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, as an extended flashback from the award ceremony in 1971.
    Starting with the failed attempt to smuggle Neruda out through the port of Valparaiso, both movies show a noticeable shift in mood when his escape route leads south. Basoalto noted in an interview that his movie “becomes more poetic and transcendent” as they enter the wilderness. Larrain doesn’t allude much to the fact that Neruda is actually returning to the part of the country where he grew up, but Basoalto introduces additional flashbacks that show Neruda as a youth — he seems to be implying that the trek, besides being an ordeal that marks Neruda’s passage into a new phase of his life as an international cultural icon, also puts him back in touch with the environment that inspired his earliest work. I thought it was significant that the flashbacks to Neruda’s teenaged self both involved scenes that some of his biographers have speculated are much-embroidered or outright inventions by the poet.
    Both the Basoalto and Larrain films become more mystical as Neruda’s trail leads up into the mountains, away from the familiar streets of Santiago. Basoalto shows the scene described in Neruda’s Nobel speech, where his guides perform a ceremonial dance around a shrine high in the Andes (there’s a bit of it in this trailer).

    Another interesting detail — I’ve found some evidence that the south of Chile, in addition to having a different ecosystem and fewer settlements than the rest of the country, has an interesting connotation. For example, there’s a place called Chiloe Island that’s described as “magical” in tourism blurbs. At first I laughed since people say that kind of thing about all kinds of out-of-the-way settings, if they want to attract romantic-minded visitors (Vancouver Island gets some of that too, and apparently it’s been played up with all the recent media attention about whether the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have fallen under its spell, so to speak).
    But in the case of Chile, apparently there’s a unique folkloric tradition there. The place is described as a bit odd, compared with the rest of Chile – reading about it reminds me of Louisiana or some parts of Appalachia. Sorcery and supernatural beings are mentioned — one creature is believed to devote itself to impregnating women all over the island, a track record that leaves Neruda himself (renowned for his affairs) in the shade.
    The poet doesn’t mention it in his memoirs, but he stayed there for awhile as a young man in 1925–visiting his friend Ruben Azocar, who was teaching at a local school. During that time, he wrote a novella, El Habitante y su Esperanza – his venture into the dramatic crime fiction he enjoyed reading. I haven’t read it, but it’s been described as dreamlike and surreal – Feinstein says a lot of it “takes place inside the characters’ minds”, which is a pretty apt description of the last part of Larrain’s Neruda film.

  3. Hello, enjoyed your review. A few recommendations: you might want to take a look at the Uruguayan modernist painter Joaquín Torres-García – his paintings were guided by the defiant idea of “Nuestro norte es el sur” (‘norte’, as you may know, meaning ‘orientation’ as well as ‘north’).
    There’s also Ariel Dorfman’s Heading South, Looking North, which I believe deals with the same concerns.
    Borges, (as ever) was a bit more ambiguous. Sometimes he takes the north to be the origin of storytelling, the sagas etc. In El Sur, there’s a journey south to the pampa, self-definition.. and well maybe you haven’t read it so I won’t spoil the ending!

    1. Many thanks for the recommendations. The Borges I do know from when I was a full-time linguist, although Torres-García I must check out, as well as that Dorfman. I stll can’t remember who wrote the paper in which the austral was presented as the space of fiction (as far as I recall in the work of Borges)… but maybe one day…! Thank you for reading.

  4. A few weeks ago I was able to find a copy of a movie released in 2014, only a couple of years before Larrain’s film came out. It’s called Neruda: Fugitivo, and was directed by Manuel Basoalto. It’s a more standard treatment and depicts many of the same characters, though the tone is different. I noticed a few broad similarities with the Larrain film. Both movies take Neruda’s time on the run in 1948-49 as their focus – Basoalto even more so, since he seems to be attempting to dramatize Neruda’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, as an extended flashback from the award ceremony in 1971. There’s even a scene that’s so similar that I suspect Larrain was paying a teasing kind of homage – where a seamstress is attempting to measure Neruda’s waistline for a new suit, and tells him not to inhale his gut.

    Starting with the failed attempt to smuggle the poet out through the port of Valparaiso, both movies show a noticeable shift in mood when Neruda’s escape route leads south. Basoalto noted in an interview that “When Neruda then left the city to head south, the film becomes more poetic and transcendent.”

    Larrain doesn’t allude much to the fact that Neruda is returning to the part of the country where he grew up, but Basoalto introduces additional flashbacks that show Neruda as a youth. I was interested to see that he picked an episode described by Neruda in his memoirs. Not the incident where he exchanges possessions through a gap in the fence with an unseen child on the other side, but the time when he’s a teenager on his way to visit a farm in the countryside, and gets lost. He’s offered hospitality for the night by some mysterious women living in an isolated house, elderly French sisters who discuss poetry with him. Basoalto changes Neruda’s version around a bit – in the movie, the French women are much younger than he describes, and they’re the ones who introduce him to the poetry of Rimbaud (which reappears in his Nobel acceptance speech). Basoalto also provides an odd twist to the story – when Neruda rides away from the house of the French sisters, he turns around for a last look, but the place appears to have vanished.

    Another interesting thing I happened to come across, about perceptions of southern Chile – I found references to a place called Chiloe Island. It’s described as “magical” in tourism blurbs. At first I laughed — people say that kind of thing about all kinds of out-of-the-way settings, if they want to attract romantic-minded visitors. (Even Vancouver Island and some of its sister islands in the Salish Sea.)

    But apparently there’s a unique folkloric tradition there – Chiloe is described as a bit odd compared with the rest of Chile. Even as far back as pre-colonial times.
    “In the beginning of the 16th century the Inca Empire ended at Chiloe Island and a strange and unknown world began.”
    Reading about it, the impression is similar to Louisiana or some parts of Appalachia. There are tales of sorcery and supernatural beings, including one creature that is believed to devote itself to impregnating women on the island. (Its track record leaves Neruda himself, renowned for his many love affairs, in the shade!)
    Neruda doesn’t mention it in his memoirs, but he certainly knew about Chiloe, because he stayed there for awhile as a young man in 1925. He was visiting his friend Ruben Azocar who was teaching at a local school. During that time he wrote a novella, El Habitante y su Esperanza – his venture into the dramatic crime fiction he enjoyed reading. I haven’t read it, but it’s been described as dreamlike and surreal – Feinstein says a lot of it “takes place inside the characters’ minds”, which is a pretty apt description of the last part of Larrain’s Neruda film.

    Noticed this earlier in the week. New play opening in Vancouver – I haven’t seen it, but it supposedly deals with a family’s return journey towards Chile, with the story becoming more surreal as they travel south.

    1. Wonderful – thank you! I’d love to try to catch this ‘other’ Neruda film, and think that the engagement with Chiloe is fascinating. As for Anywhere But Here, I am relatively certain that my partner will be watching it in the next few days – and so am very envious since I am stuck far from Vancouver… But I hope that you also get to see it!

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