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

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.

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About wjrcbrown

I am a Lecturer in Film at Roehampton University. I am a sort of filmmaker.
This entry was posted in Film education, Film reviews, Latin American cinema, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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