A poet-politician and a detective bump heads in ‘Neruda’

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"Neruda," a biopic about Nobel-prizewinning poet Pablo Neruda - MV Film Center

“Neruda,” from its title, may sound like a dutiful, possibly plodding biopic. Instead it is a remarkably imagined narrative about the great Chilean poet and politician, currently playing at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. Its director, Pablo Larraín, also produced the biopic “Jackie” last year. The center will also screen two one-night special films, “Yarn” and “The Powder and the Glory.”

Nobel-prizewinning Pablo Neruda is better known in this country as a poet of the people than a politician. But “Neruda” opens with him as a senator representing the Communist Party. The locale is a men’s room, where he and other senators are discussing politics and, in particular, the subject’s outspoken attacks on the government. Complete with urinals and washbasins, the bathroom sets the scene for the director’s tongue-in-cheek approach.

Covering the period from 1945 to 1948, the film moves to Chilean President Gabriel González Videla’s ban of Communism. Neruda (Luis Gnecco) goes into hiding for 13 months, slipping from one safe house or locale to another with help from party members. They assign him a minder, Alvaro Jara (Michael Silva), but Neruda often eludes him, preferring to wander the Santiago streets and carouse.

Enter police prefect Oscár Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal, the well-known Mexican-born actor), a dapper and prim figure who is assigned to track down Neruda. “Peluch” is Spanish for stuffed animal, its use by the director another example of Larraín’s droll approach. Musing in voiceovers about his roots as the offspring of a prostitute and, possibly, the late chief of police, Peluchonneau is a bumbling pursuer who usually arrives on the scene just after Neruda and his wife Delia (Mercedes Morán), an Argentinian aristocrat, have flown the coop.

It gradually becomes clear that Peluchonneau is an imaginary character, as is the chase to arrest his prey. He muses in voiceovers about his relationship with and pursuit of Neruda. Each time the poet-politician escapes Peluchonneau’s grasp, he leaves detective novels behind, which the detective enjoys reading. The poet’s compatriots secretly distribute to the public pages of his poem “Canto General” as he pens it.

While he is a populist spokesman for the working class, Neruda is portrayed in the film as a hedonist as much as a heroic figure. He enjoys the company of prostitutes and fellow drinkers. Urged by fellow libertines, he drunkenly recites the first line of his most famous poem, “Tonight I can write the saddest lines.” While questioned by the authorities, a drag queen pays ardent tribute to Neruda, a reminder of his stature in Chile as one who celebrates the union of poetry and democracy. In France, where Neruda eventually lives in exile, Picasso publicizes his work. Neruda finally makes his escape on horseback through the mountains, shot in gorgeous long shots, to Argentina. Peluchonneau follows, and the fantastical relationship between the two reaches fruition.

‘Yarn’ and ‘The Powder and the Glory’

Playing on Wednesday, March 8, in collaboration with Vineyard Yarn Works, the documentary “Yarn” gives a poetic and visually colorful spin (pardon the pun) on knitting and crocheting. Novelist Barbara Kingsolver has written the film’s screenplay, which traces the development of these yarn-based women’s art forms  from the sheep that provide the wool to their multiple uses beyond clothing. Beginning with a yarn artist in Iceland, the women interviewed display yarn’s unusual public uses in places ranging from Barcelona to Rome. In one case, a locomotive is covered with crochet; in another, yarn netting becomes a giant trampoline for children. The narration celebrates the connection of yarn to the meaning of life, calling the spindle an altar.

Vineyard Haven resident Arnie Reisman’s documentary, “The Powder and the Glory,” tells the story of Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein, makers of cosmetics for women.  Both immigrants, they each built empires of beauty products, creating a $150 million business. The film will play Thursday, March 9, with a Q and A with the filmmaker.