Lives of the poets: new films explore the stories of Pablo Neruda and James Baldwin

Anyone frustrated not to be served the Pablo Neruda story straight can commiserate with those viewers who were hoping that I Am Not Your Negro might deliver the life and times of James Baldwin.

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The slippery new film from Pablo Larraín, the director of the recent Jackie, is about as far from a conventional biopic as something called Neruda could have got without ­falling foul of the Trades Descriptions Act. Its hero is Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), a dogged police inspector who is on the trail of the Chilean poet, politician and diplomat Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco). “Artists think the world is something they imagine,” grumbles the long-suffering but placid lawman. He knows whereof he speaks – ­after all, he doesn’t actually exist.

Not that he seems overly concerned by this detail. Fully aware that he is a fictional character dreamt up by Neruda (“He wrote all of this long ago,” someone says, “and he wrote you as the tragic cop”), he plugs away in pursuit of the poet, who has gone to ground in late-1940s Chile after President Videla, a former leftist, decides to switch sides and join the fight against communism.

“I don’t care that Neruda created me,” Pe­luchonneau says defiantly. “Or that he made me a supporting character. I ­created me, too!” He does his darnedest to recast himself as the lead while the film insists with every frame on its own artificiality. Tinted widescreen panoramas, smoothly gliding camerawork and ostentatiously fake back-­projection footage all accentuate the unreal even as political struggles in the foreground begin to hit home. (A young Pinochet, the target of Larraín’s fury in films such as Post Mortem and No, gets a blood-curdling cameo standing guard at a concentration camp.)

Together with the screenwriter Guillermo Calderón and the cinematographer Sergio Armstrong, the director has reimagined Neruda’s story as a tour through various genres of cinema – melodrama, film noir and, finally, the western. This is not a picture about the man himself so much as a riff on the legends that attach themselves to great artists. It’s a clever, analytical film, as opposed to an absorbing one, which holds a funhouse mirror up to its subject in place of a looking-glass.

The strongest work is by Bernal, who plays it all gloriously straight no matter how crooked his surroundings become or how close to slapstick he gets. What a cheeky gag to have this actor, who played the young Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries, running into a spot of two-wheeled bother. Small wonder he has such a claim on our sympathy: it’s not so far-fetched to cheer on a character fighting for a leading role when we all believe we’re the hero of our own little movie.

Anyone frustrated not to be served the Pablo Neruda story straight can commiserate with those viewers who were hoping that I Am Not Your Negro might deliver the life and times of James Baldwin. Instead, the Haitian director Raoul Peck has combined some of Baldwin’s most trenchant talk-show appearances from the 1960s onwards with archive footage on the subject of US racial inequality and wrapped it all up with the sound of Samuel L Jackson reading from Baldwin’s published works as well as his notes on Remember This House, the unfinished project that was to bring together in one book three of his friends: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X.

The result is not a documentary about Baldwin but a vision of America through his appalled and compassionate eyes. Nor is it restricted to his lifetime. Peck and his archivists reach back to Wounded Knee and forward to a sorrowful itinerary of the young African-American lives curtailed in recent years by racist violence, using Baldwin’s commentary as connective tissue.

The writer himself, described by the FBI as “a dangerous individual”, lends the film a jolt of energy whenever he appears on screen: those question-mark eyes, the dainty hands chopping up the air for emphasis, that insinuating voice with an undercurrent of solemn disappointment. Peck uses the interview clips judiciously, situating them within a denser cultural collage than a more biographical approach might have permitted. Images from Watts, Oakland and Ferguson unspool before our eyes; we see strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. Yet somehow Peck keeps the temperature simmering, never boiling over, so that the tone reflects Baldwin’s sadness – what he called the “great shock” of discovering that your country “has not in its whole system of reality evolved any place for you”.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue