Poetry and politics collide in “Neruda”

Director Pablo Larrain ("Jackie") depicts Pablo Neruda's run from the law in 1940s Chile

Poets don’t typically make for very engaging cinematic protagonists. Even such dramatic lives as those of Allen Ginsburg and Sylvia Plath haven’t resulted in especially gripping movies. But we’ve now had two films about poets—one fictional, one real—open in Portland in the last couple of weeks, and each has its distinct charms.

Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson” stars Adam Driver as a bus driver who finds inspiration in the quotidian details of his daily life. It’s a testimony to the poet as ordinary guy, and we reviewed it here. Pablo Larrain’s “Neruda,” on the other hand, takes as its subject one of the most larger-than-life figures in 20th century literature, which allows it to be as much about Pablo Neruda’s political and hedonistic exploits as his aesthetic ones.

Luis Gnecco as Pablo Neruda in “Neruda.”

The film takes place in the late 1940s, when Neruda was already a well-known poet as well as a Chilean diplomat and Senator. He was also a member of the Communist Party, and in fact a fairly hardcore Stalinist. After Chile’s President, Gabriel González Videla, violently repressed a miner’s strike, Neruda castigated him in a speech on the Senate floor. González Videla subsequently banned the Communist Party and Neruda was threatened with arrest.

The notion of a country’s leading public intellectual going underground to avoid becoming a political prisoner is inherently fascinating these days. You probably have to go back to the 1960s for the closest American analog—Angela Davis or Timothy Leary, maybe. Anyhow, Larrain’s movie follows Neruda, played by Luis Gnecco in a convincing, charismatic impersonation, as he shuttle from one safe house to another, finding time the odd bacchanal now and again while eluding the pursuit of his own Javert, a fictional police inspector played by Gael Garcia Bernal.

In addition to bringing some star power to the project, Garcia Bernal also provides a surprisingly sympathetic antagonist. You almost feel sorry for the rule-bound cop, always a step behind the avuncular, lively poet, who pretty much never stops having fun. If they weren’t foes in a life or death, politically motivated game of cat and mouse, they could probably do alright as a Laurel-and-Hardy-esque comedy duo.

This is Larrain’s second film to open in the last six weeks. He’s also responsible for Natalie Portman’s Oscar-nominated (and hopefully -winning) performance in “Jackie,” and this rapid-fire twofer marks the 40-year-old filmmaker as one of international cinema’s great hopes. His previous films tended to focus, as “Neruda” does, on some of the darker aspects of recent Chilean history.

“Tony Manero” (2008) was about a man living the Pinochet era who grows obsessed with the lead character in “Saturday Night Fever.” “Post Mortem” (2010) takes place during the last days of Salvador Allende’s presidency, before Pinochet’s takeover. And the Oscar-nominated “No” (2012) tells the story of the advertising campaign that helped to defeat Pinochet in a 1988 referendum. Even his last film, “The Club” (2015), which focuses on a seaside home for excommunicated priests, is a metaphor for the crimes of the Pinochet regime. It’s no wonder that “Jackie,” his first American film, centers on one of our 20th-century tragedies.

As a film about poetry, then, “Neruda” may not have much to say. But as a film about poets, and their inevitable entanglements with political reality, it is certainly more timely than its creators even intended.

(“Neruda” opens Friday, January 27, at the Regal Fox Tower and the Kiggins Theatre in Vancouver.)

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