SANTIAGO, Chile: The poems that won Pablo Neruda the Nobel prize for literature may never have been seen if the writer had not been such a good horseman.
A new film, Neruda—which was shown on Friday (Saturday in Manila) at the Cannes film festival—tells of the period in the Chilean icon’s drama-packed life when he nearly drowned in a river while fleeing on horseback from anti-communist police.
Neruda’s life has already been the subject of one hit movie, The Postman, in 1994. Set on an Italian island, it told the story of a young fisherman who becomes Neruda’s personal mailman and through him learns about poetry, love and politics.
The new movie, by Chilean director Pablo Larrain stars Gael Garcia Bernal as a dogged police inspector who led the hunt for Neruda.
The pro-democracy campaigner went on the run in 1948 after the Chilean government outlawed the communist party, of which the poet was a member.
Neruda first went underground and became a fugitive as he tried to lead leftist opposition to the government, but eventually he had to flee the country.
Neruda crossed the Andes mountains on horseback en route to Argentina with local people who knew the land and almost drowned in the Currigue river in southern Chile.
He recalled this brush with death when he gave a speech accepting the Nobel prize for literature in 1971.
He said he rode a horse that was struggling to keep its head above water plunging them both in the torrent.
“Then we made it across. And as soon as we got to the other side, the peasants who were accompanying me asked with a smile, ‘Were you very afraid?’” Neruda recalled.
“I thought that my last hour had come, I said. ‘We were behind with the lassos at the ready,’ they replied.”
The episode turned Neruda into a global symbol of the fight for freedom. Shortly thereafter, Neruda would publish Canto General, an epic collection of more than 300 poems in which he depicts Latin America’s history as a continuous fight against oppression.
Director Larrain is one of the rising stars of Latin American cinema, who is now shooting Hollywood star Natalie Portman in a biopic of former US first lady Jackie Kennedy, Jackie.
His brother Juan de Dios Larrain, who produced Neruda, described that film as part police procedural, part dark comedy, part adventure flick. The action “never stops,” he told AFP.
He added: “We owe the poet several movies. This is another one of them.”
He said it would be impossible to capture in just one movie all the facets of Neruda’s life—political activist, diplomat, world-renowned writer and more.
Other chapters deserve a movie, too, argued Fernando Saez, president of the Neruda Foundation, including his busy love life, his life as a collector of ship figureheads and sea shells, and his last days after the 1973 military coup that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power.
Neruda was preparing to flee to Mexico to lead the opposition to Pinochet but he died in a hospital just days after the coup. The official cause was prostate cancer. But to this day it is argued that he was poisoned by the Pinochet regime.
Just days ago his remains were re-buried—for the third time—after undergoing three years of tests to determine the cause of death. Results are pending.
Despite his worldwide fame as a writer, many aspects of Neruda’s life are unknown to many people, said Saez.
“Neruda’s stature created a myth, and these movies help bring him closer as a human being,” he added.