Neruda: an exploration of how stories are created and shaped by those who exercise political power

Pablo Larraín, “Neruda” (2016)

Very loosely based on an episode in Chilean poet-politician Pablo Neruda’s life, when he and his wife Delia were forced to go on the run from police authorities on account of their Chilean Communist Party membership and leftist sympathies, “Neruda” explores the grey boundaries between realism and fiction, and within that zone becomes one man’s quest to find purpose and meaning in his life, in the process becoming a real human and not just a one-dimensional cog in an authoritarian machine society. The film folds in elements of noir, thriller, comedy, tragedy and Borges-style magic realism as the cat-and-mouse chase becomes a duel between what is real and what is unreal, what is imagined and what is outside imagination.

At the film’s opening, Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is already a Senator,  having denounced Chilean President Gabriel González Videla for his brutal anti-Communist attacks against ordinary people over the past couple of years since his election in 1946. (Incidentally Videla was elected President by the Chilean parliament, not in a general election.) Neruda is threatened with arrest and is forced to go into hiding, and then to find refuge in different parts of the country as the police pursue him. Prominent in the pursuit is Chief Inspector of the Investigations Police of Chile Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), a dour figure as blank as blank can be, who has never known his father and therefore is cut off from his origins and history.

Peluchonneau serves as narrator of the film as well as antagonist – or is it protagonist? – and through him, and his determination to be the lead character in this particular story, battling Neruda to be the hero figuratively as well as arresting him and achieving “heroism” (from his point of view) in the more mundane sense, the film explores how history – and Latin American history in particular – is made and shaped by those who have political power and therefore the power to direct the path of a nation’s historical narrative. At one point in the film, when Peluchonneau catches up with Delia, she suggests to him that he is a figment in Neruda’s imagination; Peluchonneau resists Delia’s suggestion and from this point on, his pursuit of Neruda becomes an absolute obsession to the point where the poet is forced to flee over the Andes mountains and the police inspector himself makes one mistake after another in pursuing the poet across snowy country.

While the film provides a good introduction into the poetry of Neruda and how it galvanised Chileans across different layers of society into supporting Neruda and the values he stood for, Larraín does not shrink from portraying the poet with all his contradictions and the ambivalent relationships he often had with his wife and close supporters. Chilean society in the 1940s is shown to quite good effect, as much as can be done in a film under 2 hours in length: the historical details look fairly accurate, and the rural landscapes and natural countryside of Chile, from the fjords to the high country of Araucanian pines, are stunningly filmed. As Neruda flees farther away from Santiago, Peluchonneau’s authority – and by implication, government control – weakens and becomes laughably incompetent.

The acting is not bad but it’s not great either. Bernal does a good job portraying Peluchonneau as a cypher but cannot flesh out the character with the result that Peluchonneau always seems less than human even when his quest and sacrifice endow him with the purpose and humanity he has always sought. The best acting actually comes from two minor characters: the drag queen who tells Peluchonneau of his brief connection to Neruda that the inspector will never experience, and the waitress who challenges Neruda on his political beliefs and whether she will ever be his political and economic equal once Chile is rid of tyranny and dictatorship.

As long as viewers realise that “Neruda” is intended as a fantastic retelling of what might have been in a period of Neruda’s life, the film is an entertaining light thriller; but beyond light entertainment, it can do no more.

No: historical drama lacks passion and the full context of Pinochet 1988 referendum

Pablo Larraín, “No” (2012)

Set in late Pinochet-era Chile when the old dictator general, under international pressure to allow democracy to return to the South American country, reluctantly put the issue of his rule for another 8 years to public referendum, Larraín’s film “No” is an unusual history lesson on the interaction of politics and public relations. Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal) plays an advertising executive hired by a group of social democratic and socialist party representatives to design a TV campaign urging people to vote “No” to Pinochet’s continued dictatorship. Bizarrely Saavedra’s ad boss Lucho Guzman (Alfredo Castro) agrees to design the TV campaign for the pro-Pinochet side. This surreal premise sets up the two men and the extremes of the political spectrum they work for at loggerheads with potentially serious consequences for Saavedra’s career, personal life and son Simon.

The film is presented in the style of near-documentary / cinema vérité which shows off the cast’s acting and the passion they invest in their work. Bernal dominates the film and does excellent work; other members of the cast do very sterling work in their roles. Many people shown playing Pinochet’s supporters were involved in the actual “No” campaign that took place in 1988. The film-stock used is one popular in the late 1980s for filming and this enables Larraín to intersperse newsreels of the period into the film; this means that the entire movie looks a bit washed out with bleached colours. The equipment and filming methods are also ones typical of the late 1980s.

Although “No” is not an obvious action thriller, it has plenty of potential for drama as Saavedra takes on a job for which his background as the child of an exile having grown up overseas has not prepared him. His political allegiances are considered suspect by the left-wing parties who hire him. One might wonder why they did that and the film gives a fairly flimsy reason: Saavedra’s father was once a left-wing politician. The Mexican Bernal is ideal to play Saavedra: wide-eyed and youthful, he has a somewhat cynical and slightly apathetic attitude the character needs at the beginning of the film; as it progresses, Saavedra finds himself at the centre of historical events arising from the ad campaign and he becomes bewildered and frighened. He must confront the pro-Pinochet forces against him: his home is invaded mysteriously at night, his car is vandalised, strange people follow him and he fears for his son’s safety. To make matters worse, Guzman tells him that should the “No” campaign fail, he will be considered a threat to Pinochet and will be jailed. If that were not all, even the project he undertakes presents obstacles: the referendum is designed in such a way that it favours Pinochet with the TV exposure time allocated to the “No’ campaigners posted during the midnight graveyard TV viewing shift. Both sides for the “No” and “Yes” campaigns view him as ignorant and disrespectful of Chile’s recent history with his flaky and recycled ideas.

Just as there is much drama, there is quite a lot of comedy and satire, notably at the start where Saavedra invokes ideas of happiness, freedom and liberty … for an aid campaign promoting soft drink; he uses the same tired strategies for the “No” campaign; and in the film’s denouement, he’s still flogging those strategies for all they’re worth for a TV soap opera. (This tells us something about the culture that produces people like Saavedra in the manner of a sausage-making factory which the film is unable to explore.) Black humour does arise throughout the film as the opposing sides match ad campaigns with ad campaigns, stealing ideas, making copies of copies of copies, as advertising agencies often did in those days.

The film does not show the whole story behind the “No” campaign – it shows it mostly from Saavedra’s point of view and that is not very deep. There is nothing shown of any grassroots campaign undertaken by leftist parties and groups to encourage urban and rural people alike to vote “No” and the implication is that Saavedra’s silly and superficial campaign won over enough Chileans to vote “No” and boot Pinochet out of office. That’s hard to believe given the severity of his rule at the time, a smidgen of which is portrayed in the movie. There is nothing in the film that indicates what happened to Pinochet and his followers after democracy was restored. The cinema vérité style of the film limits its scope to portray very much of what people behind the “No” campaign were doing to push it along; as a result, in its early half the film gives the impression of muddling through its story. There is not much passion and energy in this part of the movie and at the cinema where I saw it, I was almost falling asleep and several patrons around me were also drowsy and dozing off.

It would have been a bonus if the character of Saavedra had changed for the better as a result of working on the “No” campaign but Larraín chooses to keep him as essentially detached and cynical about the work he does and the ideas he re-uses to death. This perhaps says something significant about the condition of modern Western people and the world they live in, in which ideals can be bought and sold at the highest bidding prices. Can it be that advertising campaigns that appeal to people’s fears and desires are more effective than winning over people’s hearts AND MINDS with ideals, ideology and reason? The hollowness that Saavedra feels when others around him are celebrating the success of the “No” campaign is troubling and suggests that the freedom that Chileans have won might also be an empty one that will not last long once the euphoria and celebrations end. Achieving happiness is more elusive than winning freedom from a hated dictatorship.

The film is recommended as an introduction to Chilean history and politics of the period but beyond that, interested students must find other information. It is disappointing that Larraín spends little time detailing the size of the monster that was Pinochet, why people were so afraid of him, and why he was able to govern the country for as long as he did. The period of Pinochet’s rule is significant for everyone, not just Chileans, as Pinochet provided an unwilling guinea pig country on which economic policies of monetarism, deregulation and privatisation were carried out by economists who had studied at the University of Chicago. The result was that nearly half the Chilean population was thrown into dire poverty while a few people close to Pinochet, the generals and various political and corporate interests in the United States enriched themselves. Chile also suffered economic and financial crises. By the time Pinochet was forced out of power, Chile’s economy had become dependent on agriculture and mining for its income with little manufacturing, mostly for its own needs. An opportunity to industrialise in the way South Korea did in the 1960s under an equally autocratic and harsh President of similar military background who also came power through a coup was missed. Chile became an example for Britain under Margaret Thatcher and the United States under Ronald Reagan to follow in the 1980s, and in turn other countries copied these two. The world now stands on the brink of economic and environmental ruin thanks in part  to Pinochet, those who backed him in Washington DC and Chicago, and their eager acolytes around the globe. A line Saavedra repeats in the film – “… copies of copies of copies …” – becomes prophetic.