“AM I FICTION?” the detective who is chasing Chilean poet Pablo Neruda asks in Neruda, the intriguing new film from director Pablo Larrain.
In fact, the policeman played by Gael Garcia Bernal (above) is invented for the movie—not just as a plot device in a game of cat-and-mouse down the length of the slender South American country, but to symbolize real and imagined persecutors of leftists who “like to play the victim,” as another character in the film puts it.
Nobel Prize-winning poet Ricardo Eliecer Neftali Reyes Basoalto, who went by the pen name Pablo Neruda (after the Czech poet Jan Neruda), was also a diplomat and politician in Chile. When the country outlawed communism in 1948, Neruda—played in the film by Luis Gnecco—was forced into hiding, as other members of the party were arrested.
In the movie, a prison camp in the harsh Atacama Desert in northern Chile is run by Augusto Pinochet, who would later become dictator of the country after a coup d’etat against democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende in 1973.
A reflection of Neruda’s writing style, which sometimes ventured into surrealism, the film toys with the relationship between reality and illusion, including the suggestion that the pampered, hedonistic poet perhaps wasn’t suited to speak for the country’s impoverished masses.
As the story unfolds, the beautifully shot film moves from the urban sophistication of Santiago to the port city of Valparaiso, and then south to Chile’s Lake District—a landscape of mountains and cloud-shrouded pine forests.
The chase continues to the snow of the country’s southern reaches, where the dogged policeman—by now obsessed as much with trying to prove his own existence and worth as with apprehending Neruda—concludes his journey. Like a “second sea,” the Andes Mountains separate Chile from Argentina, where the poet eventually finds exile, supported by Pablo Picasso and other artists in Paris.