with Gael Garcia Bernal, Luis Gnecco.
Pablo Lorrain’s second movie this year (after Jackie, his first in English) could not be more different than Paterson, another movie (directed by Jim Jarmusch) about a poet. Lorrain takes a poet in trouble with the law, a Chilean Senator at odds with his president, a Communist whose party has been outlawed, and members thrown into jail. Some of the scenes that show the conflict between Pablo Neruda and the president are almost comical, the sides are so different. The action begins with a narrator we do not know explaining the conflict, and how it will lead to exile and a police chase through the Andes as Neruda escapes to Argentina.
It doesn’t matter how realistic the story is, the basic feeling of the plot is that a popular poet is sometimes in trouble with everyone he knows, but he keeps writing. He writes in his house with his second wife, he writes in the places he hides in, he writes on the road. His love poems are clamored for, and memorized by an adoring public, Pablo Picasso takes up his cause, and eventually he lands in France where he is an international celebrity.
His antagonist, a policeman named Oscar Petuchonneau, is played by Gael Garcia Bernal, an excellent actor, whose quest to locate and capture the poet on the run becomes a kind of wild goose chase — perhaps a fantasy of how Neruda needed to have an enemy in order to create his work.
Because the chase became the crux of the story, and I was looking for more about the poet himself, I was less than satisfied with Neruda. This is my problem, though, since the director never intended what I sought. The scenes are well composed, the photography of the mountains is spectacular, and the poet is never less than a complicated human being.
It is probably enough that a poet has been committed to the screen, one whose work we will now look up and find revelatory. Cinema may not be the best place to adapt poetry. It is internal work we must do to absorb its meaning, and movies are all about the images and sound we see and hear immediately. Neruda has plenty of these and they are beautiful.
Here is one of my favorite Neruda poems which I found on the Academy of American Poets website.
It so happens I am sick of being a man.
And it happens that I walk into tailorshops and movie houses
dried up, waterproof, like a swan made of felt
steering my way in a water of wombs and ashes.
The smell of barbershops makes me break into hoarse sobs.
The only thing I want is to lie still like stones or wool.
The only thing I want is to see no more stores, no gardens,
no more goods, no spectacles, no elevators.
It so happens I am sick of my feet and my nails
and my hair and my shadow.
It so happens I am sick of being a man.
Still it would be marvelous
to terrify a law clerk with a cut lily,
or kill a nun with a blow on the ear.
It would be great
to go through the streets with a green knife
letting out yells until I died of the cold.
I don’t want to go on being a root in the dark,
insecure, stretched out, shivering with sleep,
going on down, into the moist guts of the earth,
taking in and thinking, eating every day.
I don’t want so much misery.
I don’t want to go on as a root and a tomb,
alone under the ground, a warehouse with corpses,
half frozen, dying of grief.
That’s why Monday, when it sees me coming
with my convict face, blazes up like gasoline,
and it howls on its way like a wounded wheel,
and leaves tracks full of warm blood leading toward the night.
And it pushes me into certain corners, into some moist houses,
into hospitals where the bones fly out the window,
into shoeshops that smell like vinegar,
and certain streets hideous as cracks in the skin.
There are sulphur-colored birds, and hideous intestines
hanging over the doors of houses that I hate,
and there are false teeth forgotten in a coffeepot,
there are mirrors
that ought to have wept from shame and terror,
there are umbrellas everywhere, and venoms, and umbilical cords.
I stroll along serenely, with my eyes, my shoes,
my rage, forgetting everything,
I walk by, going through office buildings and orthopedic shops,
and courtyards with washing hanging from the line:
underwear, towels and shirts from which slow
dirty tears are falling.
“Walking Around” from Neruda & Vallejo: Selected Poems, by Pablo Neruda and translated by Robert Bly (Boston: Becon Press, 1993). Used with permission of Robert Bly.