When Poetry and Politics Mix

A Brief Commentary Review of  Neruda
A Film Written and directed by Pablo Larraín

Review by John Bennison, Mountain Shadow Director
NERUDA was Mountain Shadow's selection for January, 2107

Who ever loved as we love?  Let us seek
the ancient ashes of every burned-up heart,
and let our kisses fall there, one by one,
resurrecting each forsaken flower.
        Sonnet 45 (from Cien Sonetos de Amor), translated by Paul Weinfield.

In the 1994 film, Il Postino (“The Postman”), a simple mailman from the Italian working class learns to love poetry while delivering mail to a famous Chilean poet who has been exiled as a political refugee from his own country. Mario uses poetry to woo and win the hand of the local beauty Beatrice. But when they plan to marry, the local priest initially refuses to allow the poet to be Mario’s best man, because of the poet’s controversial political views. While a fictionalized allegory of Pablo Neruda’s years in exile, the message is clear. While poetry and politics presumably don’t mix, in real life the are, as often as not, often inseparable.

As the son of a railway worker, Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto’s sympathies for the working class are in his bones. But when the poet achieves success as a world-renowned writer, he changes his name to Pablo Neruda and joins a company of world-class intellectual elites like the artist, Pablo Picasso, and existentialist philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre. He is not just an esoteric, rabble-rouser poet. He is also a Chilean opposition leader, whose political views are subversive to the status quo; where gross economic disparity reigns and divides a nation.

When a warrant is issued for his arrest, he will not run. But he will hide to elude his would-be captors. In the filmmaker’s script, the chase will become an epic poem, with the different characters narrating the lines. Clues will be left behind for the police inspector, Peluchonneau; while another line is recited another stanza to keep the chase alive.  Referring to this “trained monkey,” the first lines will read, “Rise and be born with me, policeman brother.” 

The cinematic poem will blur fiction and non-fiction in this escapade. For example, a desert internment camp for communist party members and their sympathizers is likened to a zoo; while the zoo keeper is, in fact, a “blue-eyed fox” named Augusto Pinochet.

At another point, when Neruda eludes his would-be captors, his wry line goes, “To write well, one must know how to erase.”

And when Neruda’s estranged wife refuses to denounce the man who has betrayed her as a traitor to his country as well, the befuddled inspector publicly declares his conundrum: “The poet is a public menace, and an unforgettable lover.” Could there possibly be a more dangerous mix?

After Neruda is forced to leave his lover who can no longer accompany him on a rugged escape route, the inspector interrogates his lover, Delia; trying to grasp the situation in which he’s become an unwitting accomplice.

“You don’t understand,” she says. “In this fiction, we all revolve around the protagonist. He wrote you as a tragic cop. He wrote me as the absurd woman. And he wrote himself as the depraved fugitive. He created you with an empty stare … 100 meters away from life.”

“Am I fiction?” he asks. “Yes,” she replies.  “Are you fiction?” he asks her. “No,” Neruda’s flesh and blood image of love replies. “I’m real. And I’m eternal.”

The film’s message transcends such earthly matters as human mortality. In the epilogue that concludes the film, the inspector will return to recite his brief but ghostly soliloquy: “Neruda made me eternal. His art gave me life. I was made of paper … and now I’m made of blood.”