Neruda

Neruda

Image by Neruda

Daniel Nelson

Neruda, a biopic about the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean novelist, is a Marmite film – you’ll probably either love or hate it.

The storyline is interesting: it’s a tussle between the portly Neruda, who the government wants to catch for his Communist and authority-mocking beliefs, and the sleek police officer charged with hunting him down.

The fun-loving Neruda is always, just, one step ahead as the chase moves from Santiago to the Andes. For the poet-politician, the chase is as much, or more, about creating a legend than simply dodging imprisonment.

Some viewers may be alienated by Neruda’s egoism and sleaziness – his real-life womanising is illustrated by his brothel exploits – and others may be put off by the knowledge the officer is an entirely fictional character.

Neruda, however, is not a documentary (though for the English-speaking world this vivid film will be the only and therefore permanent image of Neruda, and be taken as a roughly historical account) and so can’t be judged on its accuracy. It’s more an impression, a poetic image; it’s Nerudian rather than Neruda.

Or in the words of director Pablo Lorrain in In an interview with the Washington Post: “Neruda is a guy that, if you put your hands together and you try to hold him and drink him, like water, you can do it, but it will drain out. You will lose the water, but your hands will stay wet. That’s what I mean by saying the movie is Nerudian. We sort of absorbed and swallowed his entire work and life, and we sweated out this film. Neruda was not just a politician and writer, but a great cook, an expert on wine, a diplomat, a world traveler, a great collector. He had multiple relationships with women over his life. He lived in many, many countries, and spoke five languages. Can you reduce him to just one simple movie? No. This movie is like going into his house and playing with his toys, you know? We are more respectful than responsible.”

It also pits poetry – representing imagination, creativity, rule-breaking, individualism – against authority, representing conformity, order, docility, repression. The film clearly stands for the former, for Nerudaism, particularly since the stalking policeman seems a little enamoured with his fleeing prey.

Neruda is playful, with delightful 1940s period scenes and excellent cinematography, but in the end, or rather, before the end, I grew a little weary with its central conceit. It’s not quite as original as it seems to believe (but it's only fair to say that the film was Golden Globe nominated for Best Foreign Language Film 2017 and nominated for Best International Film at the Munich Film festival 2016).  

* Neruda is showing on 30 March at the Institut francais, 6.30pm, on 3 April at the BFI, Belvedere Road, SE1, at 6.15pm, on 5 April at the Curzon Soho, 6.20pm, and goes on general release from 7 April.

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