When they worked together on 2012’s No, Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal and Chilean director-producer Pablo Larraín developed a relationship that would endure. They share a passion for politics and for filmmaking in their region.
Now in Neruda Bernal plays a fascist investigator on the trail of one of Larraín’s heroes, Chilean poet, politician and lifelong Communist, Pablo Neruda (1904-1973, played by Luis Gnecco, also from No). It’s not really a detective thriller but a cat and mouse game, a poetic adventure, very loosely based on real events.
Set in 1948, Neruda, a senator in the Chilean coalition government, is equally loved by the elite and the workers whose causes he defends. When he accuses the government of betraying the Communist Party he is impeached by President Gonzalez Videla. He tries to flee the country with his wife, Delia del Carril, but is forced into hiding and eventually takes an escape route via Argentina, passing through the rugged Andes Mountains. It is during this period that he writes his epic collection of poems, Canto General. In Europe the legend of the poet hounded by the policeman grows and artists including Pablo Picasso demand Neruda’s freedom.
After presenting Neruda in Cannes last year Larraín went back to put the finishing touches on his English-language debut, Jackie, which scored Natalie Portman a best actress Oscar nomination. Bernal too has been receiving acclaim, most prominently on the small screen for the Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle, winning a Golden Globe last year and receiving a nomination this year. In January he won the FIPRESCI Prize for Neruda at the Palm Springs International Film Festival with the jury citing that “Bernal's performance is the heart of the film's tonal shifts, infusing the historical drama with the very poetry of its subject matter.”
It’s a hard film to describe but an easy film to experience and enjoy.
Is this an anti-biopic?
PL: Neruda is not a guy you can put into a box. I read multiple biographies, his own autobiography, all of his work and I made a movie about him. But still I don’t know who he was. He’s a guy you can’t grasp. Once you understand that then you work with a lot of freedom. When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971 in his speech he said one of the most important moments in his life was this moment in the film, especially when he crossed the border, because he was held by people who didn't know who he was or that he was a politician. So he learnt about fraternity. Then at the end he said he didn't know if he dreamt this or wrote this, but it doesn’t matter. When we heard that we thought this is what we’re dealing with. So we used that as a starting point.
Neruda was born Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto. He derived his pen name from the Czech poet Jan Neruda.
PL: Pablo Neruda is an invented illusion. It’s as if he was playing all the time.
Gael is having another moment of success and shows a new maturity.
PL: I think he’s one of the greatest actors in the world. He’s rejecting projects every day. Everyone wants to work with him. I want to work with him. He has an energy and an incredible talent. His performance in this movie is amazing. I really admire him so much.
How was it to reconstruct Neruda, to give him humanity?
PL: It’s a body, you know. That's the problem with biopics. You’re dealing with a monument not with a body. So at some point you have to get rid of it. We create an elaborate fiction in order to understand politics, poetry and also to have fun. Why not? And why not try to find some beauty? I don't think this is a movie about two characters. I think they’re the same character. It's a single character movie divided in two persons. That's how I see it.
Are you committed to making period movies?
PL: This is my fifth period movie. I can’t believe it! Why can’t I take a camera outside and shoot? To make Neruda was the idea of my brother, the film’s producer (Juan de Dios Larraín). We started working on this complicated expensive long shoot all over the country. Then we had to shoot in Buenos Aires and in Paris—it was a five-country co-production so it took a while. The movie was postponed for five months so I made The Club. Afterwards I made Jackie. My agent sent me a science fiction script. I said, “Do you have anything that's happening today?”
The movie shows how Neruda was into sex and drugs and was a wild man. Tell me more.
PL: He was famous for that. He was an incredible lover; he loved everything in life. He was a wonderful cook, he loved wine--he was an expert in wine--he was a collector of all sorts of things, he travelled around the world and he had three houses. His houses in Chile today are museums. He was a vigorous reader; he read everything even crime novels. He was a guy who you couldn't tell if he was serious or not. When I realised that again it gave me freedom. You’re never to capture him completely.
He was quite a modern man.
PL: Very, very. He was a guy who gave the words to our entire society; all those terrible dramas are there. He could have been the candidate for President but he let Allende be the candidate and they won. Then Pinochet came in and destroyed everything.
Imagine if he was!
PL: Can you imagine that! I’d make a movie about that. Another period movie! Neruda as the President! Ah!
You have a few grey hairs since I last saw you for No?
GGB: Oh, they've been there for a while. One day it’s just going to get worse!
What is the difference between working in film and television?
GGB: TV stories are novels whereas cinema is poetry. You never know where you are with poetry, you never know where you’re going. Like cinema it's an interior journey. Shooting with Pablo is like that, all of a sudden you’re doing the scene here and then you’re doing it somewhere else. So why not change it? A lot of the magic comes from all these little accidents. It’s scary and it can give you a slight panic attack, but taking risks is the wonderful thing about cinema. If it wasn't like that then we might as well go and have a coffee or play football, which is much healthier.
What is your connection with Pablo Neruda? Do you have a love of poetry in general?
GGB: Definitely. I’m coming from a Spanish-speaking country and Neruda is a part of Spanish literature. You study him in school. He is the most famous 20th century poet in our countries for sure. You start to read him and develop a love of poetry when you’re young. His poetry makes you want to get laid or fall in love.
Did you personally want to get laid or fall in love when you read it?
GGB: (Smiles) Ah, I wanted to fall in love. I was more the romantic type. I would write love letters and I would use words from Neruda.
Did it impress?
GGB: It didn't work, no. (Chuckles) But at the same time there is nothing more sensual than the poems that he wrote when he was 20 years old. He really was with a lot of women. He was separated six times and had 10 children. He was not even good looking but it was about the power of the imagination. He was like Cyrano de Bergerac in a way.
With poetry you can fall in love but can it change the world?
GGB: Yes I think so, because the consequences are definitely there in the 20th century in the post-war poetry and art. We can say that art is poetry and that it was an integral part of politics. All those amazing post-war poets like Neruda and Brecht in Germany established the direct method through which our notion of belonging comes: being attached to a country, to a place, to an ideal or searching for an ideal. It might sound naïve but I think it’s transgressive. I think politics needs more poetry now.
Would you ever go officially into politics?
(At this year’s Academy Awards ceremony Bernal was outspoken regarding President Trump's planned border wall between the United States and Mexico. “As a Mexican, as a migrant worker, as a human being, I'm against any form of wall that separates us,” he told the crowd before he presented the award for best animated feature. He has appeared in films highlighting the plight of Latino migrants in the hands of the US authorities: Marc Silver’s 2013 documentary, Who Is Dayani Cristal?; and 2015’s Desierto directed by Jonás Cuarón, the son of Alfonso Cuarón.)
GGB: Yes. I think what I already do is political in a way, but to go formally into politics, to establish myself in an electorate, maybe. I used to think no, not at all, but now I’m starting to think I have something to say.
Are you still a dreamer?
GBB: Yes of course. I have to be, because if I wasn’t I wouldn't be doing films. I wouldn't be an actor really. If I wasn't romantic about it or if I wasn't idealistic about it, there would be no point. I mean, I have to keep it up.