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Lovers of verse in film will remember the Chilean Nobel prize-winner Pablo Neruda as the poet to whom Massimo Troisi delivered letters in Michael Radford’s poignant The Postman twenty years ago. Now, perhaps surprisingly for the first time, the Chilean legend gets a film to himself, and it’s a thoroughly prosaic wasted opportunity. This ambitious, sizably budgeted attempt to tell the true story of Neruda on the run from the authorities during a thirteen-month spell in the 40s is faithful to the facts, but faithless to the spirits of either drama or the poetic. Despite that, Neruda’s global reputation might generate limited festival interest beyond Latin America.
The film opens with his Nobel speech from 1971, in which he alluded to the journey across the Andes he’d made more than twenty years earlier. The alarm bells ring early: instead of using Neruda’s original voice, director Manuel Basoalto uses that of erstwhile TV actor Jose Sacall, who plays him. In 1948 Neruda was a senator in the Chilean government who’d turned against the president, Gonzalez Videla (Max Corvalan) making a critical speech about him — known as the “J’accuse” speech — which made Neruda a wanted man and effectively forced him into exile.
Early scenes don’t do a bad job of recreating the political situation of the time, bewildering though it is. Neruda at least has the virtue of being pretty true to the facts — Basoalto came to the project after directing a TV documentary about the poet — but crucially, it doesn’t shape them into a sense of accumulating drama.
The politics is anyway dropped pretty quickly after the first half-hour. One fact ploddingly follows another as Neruda, under an assumed identity, is shifted somewhat unceremoniously from one safe house to another en route to Argentina, spending time with his lover, Delia del Carril (Paulina Harrington) and others along the way, towards his final trans-Andean journey. For a hero, Neruda’s role in all this is rather passive. It almost plays as though Basoalto realized too late that actually, there might not be much of a story to be found in a bearded, balding, overweight man crossing the Andes on a horse, even if that man happens to be one of Latin America’s greatest poets.
Only one scene hints at what Neruda might have been: a quiet moment after the exhausted Neruda has fallen asleep, as Delia reads the masterpiece — Canto General — he’s worked on through his months of exile. It’s a nicely human moment in a film which otherwise feels entirely staged.
How does the great man at the center of it all come across? As frankly unengaging, and considerably less great than the Communist party comrades who risked their lives and liberties by helping him. One of them, an unfortunate, unnamed seamstress played by the fine actress Catalina Saavedra, is arrested and then, unforgivably, abandoned by the script. And Neruda comes across as a rather pompous, selfish figure who is lucky enough to be adored by everyone: in other words, the Neruda of the popular imagination, and disappointingly not a new Neruda restored to life for the cinema. The great man’s greatness, in fact, ends with the end of his great initial speech. (And never once does he say thank you.)
At one point, a lengthy flashback of the poet as a young adventurer is inserted, amateurishly presenting events which are referenced neither before or afterwards. The aim seem to be to squeeze the Neruda’s poetic development into about fifteen minutes. It features a weird visit to the mountain home of some French women, and a chat with some local country folk who are inevitably full of wisdom. And inevitably the flashback ends by showing a local girl, with whom Neruda has exchanged a single furtive glance, lowering herself onto his groin.
Art direction by Carlos Baeza is excellent, as is the location photography by German LInero, though when you have the Andes mountains to point your camera at, you have a head start. Juan Cristobal Meza’s orchestral score is stately and occasionally attractive.
Production company: Extremo Sur Films, Omnicom Media Group
Cast: Jose Secall, Paulina Harrington, Nelson Brodt, Catalina Saavedra, Alejandro Trejo, Erto Pantoja, Luis Dubo, Juan Luis Ruiz
Director, screenwriter: Manuel Basoalto
Producers: Francia Aranda, Marcelo Cadiz, Marcelo Yala
Executive producers Robin Westcott
Director of photography: German Linero
Production designer: Carlos Baeza
Editor: Luis Aguirre
Composer: Juan Cristobal Meza
Sales: Extremo Sur Films
No rating, 100 minutes
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