“We of the left do not blacklist.” -Zero Mostel
The reason most of the world will always vote against its best interests is an often unwitting lack of empathy. We don’t want to know how our neighbor lives, because we’ve been taught to take an absurd amount of pride in the tiny amount we do get to experience. Naturally we’re suspicious of and frequently hate people we’ve never met; our cultural and religious narratives encourage working towards goals we didn’t pick or create: Heaven, a wife and kids, a pension, retirement, a well attended funeral. When someone suggests there’s more out there it’s easy to see it as a threat to one’s way of life not least because politicians and religious leaders are constantly in our ear reminding us that these deviations are against their god’s plan. So we don’t even attempt to understand what we’re missing out on, because it would make a mockery of the values we’ve been told our working lives reinforce. We hate others for their experience of sensations and ideas we will never attempt.
This is the everyday tragedy Pablo Larraín’s Neruda attempts to dramatize, using the life of one of the most famous communists of the 20th century as a fever cabinet to draw out the infection of fascism from a public who don’t realize how sick they’ve become. Larraín and writer Guillermo Calderón tell the story of the senator/poet Pablo Neruda (played with palpable delight by Luis Gnecco) deciding to go underground after publicly criticizing Chilean president Gabriel González Videla (portrayed by Larraín’s muse Alfredo Castro) with no small measure of voluptuous invention. Neruda’s escape is presented as a kind of film noir picaresque, spurred by the relentless, ambitious policeman Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal, sporting sociopathic confidence and a Hitler haircut) who hopes catching the poet will earn him the respect of his government. As Peluchonneau draws nearer to his quarry, across the rivers and over the mountains described in Neruda’s Canto General, their consciousnesses begin to meld.
Doubles and mirrors are an integral thread of Larraín’s thematic quilt. From the competing advertising firms in No to the serial killer who inhabits the spirit of John Travolta in Tony Manero, he uses man’s boundless and frequently depraved creativity to dream up negatives of his protagonists. Saints for angels, murderers for artists. Neruda’s cup runneth over with duplicates and inverses. There’s Neruda the man, born Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, a politician who can’t always protect the working class he loves. There are the many identities he wears to leave Chile, including at various times a prostitute’s dress and a beard that makes him look like Tintin’s sidekick Captain Haddock. There’s the seeming contradiction in this communist, who dreams of equality for all men, living the life of a hedonist who takes full advantage of life’s bountiful decadences. He understands and to some extent chafes at his own celebrity, growing visibly weary of reciting “Tonight I Can Write The Saddest Lines” for rapt audiences, but always acquiescing because his own desires are subordinate to those of the people, who after all give his words meaning. Near the end, a journalist asks Neruda if he ever worries that his politics will overshadow his poetry. He doesn’t answer, because they are one and the same. The same can be said of Larraín’s camera, where diffuse lighting, heavy silhouettes and impossible colors create a dreamy, nocturnal purgatory, a perpetual fugue inside of which a poetic investigation into twin souls can take place.
Peluchonneau, the product of a policeman and a whore, “the son of venereal disease,” is everything Neruda fears. Neat, humourless, stupid, unimaginative, he is the population that denies its own enlightenment, that fears the other and rejects freedom for order. Neruda is the mother Peluchonneau will never know (hence dressing as a woman to evade him). Neruda laments early in the movie that the government he’s abandoning will soon sign laws with spelling errors into effect, and men like Peluchonneau will be only too willing to make the public swallow this fool’s future. What Larraín and Calderón tell us is that even the violent cop, “half moron and half idiot,” is still worthy of love and consideration because Neruda does not give up on him. Neruda’s partner Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán) tries to explain to Peluchonneau that Neruda has created him, that the demand for Neruda’s death led to his being placed on his trail, and thus gave his life meaning. Neruda, in a moment redolent of both Raúl Ruiz and Grand Illusion, recognizes that this man gives him meaning in return. The government bloodhound, the mirthless oppressor, is what gives him the drive to free his people and better describe life’s beauty, that maybe one day his words will educate a blind man such as this. Neruda dedicated his life to undermining fascism and violence through very real political action and the intangible work of his poems, and this film, as stylistically extravagant, magnanimous and open as the best of Francis Ford Coppola, is a deeply important work of empathy. Now more than ever, audiences need movies like this, movies that argue with conviction, pleasure, and purpose that no man is beyond love. No one is beyond compassion.