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/ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT/FILM-CHILE: Neruda’s Secret Odyssey Heads to Big Screen

Gustavo González

SANTIAGO, Aug 7 2001 (IPS) - A filmmaker is reconstructing one of the epic passages of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s life: his clandestine exodus from Chile into Argentina in 1949 as he fled persecution by the anticommunist government of Gabriel González Videla.

Director Manuel Basoalto is just beginning to shoot the film “Un camino en la selva” (A Path in the Forest), after launching a detailed investigation three years ago into this chapter in the history of Neruda, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, and who died Sep 23, 1973.

In July, on the occasion of what would have been the poet’s 97th birthday, the Pablo Neruda Foundation, the state-run National Television of Chile and Babel Films signed an agreement to co- produce Basoalto’s film.

“Un camino en la selva” will be a feature-length “docu- fiction”, as the young director has defined the project, which is to include a combination of testimonies from the people who were directly involved in Neruda’s odyssey and reconstructions of events using professional actors.

The project entails a longer film to be shown in cinemas as well as special chapters in video format that will be broadcast by Chile’s National Television.

Basoalto’s principal source of information for the movie are two octogenarian mule drivers: Juvenal and Juan Flores.

The Flores brothers were the ones who led Neruda through the forests of the mountainous area of Futrono, some 870 km south of Santiago, into Argentina, along what is known as “the smugglers’ route.”

Basoalto met the two in 1998 when he and a small film crew set out into the Futrono forests in an effort to create a digital record of the route the poet had followed as a fugitive from Chilean justice 50 years before.

The director’s motives were not only historical interest in the event. He was also inspired by the words of Neruda himself, who spoke of this secret journey in his speech before the Swedish Academy in 1971 when he received the Nobel for literature.

It was all nature that was simultaneously dazzling and secretive, and at the same time a growing threat of cold, snow, persecution, according to Neruda. It was a mixture of solitude, danger, silence and the urgency of a personal mission.

“As we made our way into the forest of the foothills we realised that Neruda had not exaggerated at all. In fact, his description didn’t go far enough. The geography is difficult and the route dangerous,” Basoalto said.

“The most amazing part for me was, on the one hand, meeting the two mule drivers who had accompanied Neruda and, on the other, entering a small house in the middle of the forest that Neruda had reportedly used as a shelter,” added the director.

“There we found things that had not been touched in 50 years,” he said.

Neruda’s clandestine trek has all the ingredients for a great film: the experiences of the world renowned poet and the majestic beauty of the southern Andes interwoven with the reconstruction of an historic era marked by the impacts of the Cold War on Chile.

And within that mix, says Basoalto, there are plenty of film elements reminiscent of a spy thriller or a western.

“It was a very interesting era. There was the Cold War, the press published enormous photos of Neruda – he was a wanted man- and he was pursued by the police. It all feeds the suspense. When Neruda then left the city to head south, the film becomes more poetic and transcendent,” Basoalto stated in describing the film script.

The period covered by the movie is a time of definitive political choices for Neruda, who since the Spanish Civil War had begun a process of clear identification with the left, and with the Communist Party (PC) of Chile in particular.

On Mar 4, 1945, he was elected senator for the provinces of Tarapacá and Antofagasta in Chile’s extreme north, representing the PC. He formally joined the Senate Jul 8 of that year, after being awarded Chile’s National Literature Prize.

The Second World War was nearing an end. In Chile, the Popular Front, a coalition in which the leading force was the Radical Party, had governed since 1939 in alliance with communists and socialists.

In the 1946 electoral campaign, senator Neruda served as national propaganda chief for the Radical Party’s Gabriel González Videla, presidential candidate for the Popular Front. Once in office, González Videla turned against the PC amid the emerging Cold War tensions.

The González Videla government, with the support of liberals and conservatives, pushed through legislation known as the Defence of Democracy Act, which banned the Communist Party.

On Jan 6, 1948, Neruda delivered a speech before the Senate – titled “Yo acuso” (I accuse) – in which he condemned González Videla as a traitor.

The consequences for the poet were severe. Chile’s Supreme Court of Justice stripped Neruda of his political immunity as senator Feb 3, and two days later ordered his arrest.

At that moment, the poet went into hiding. Meanwhile, numerous Communist Party leaders and activists were rounded up and sent to a concentration camp in Pisagua, in northern Chile.

After a failed plan to cross the Andes into Argentina via Los Libertadores pass, east of Santiago, Neruda eventually headed south, arriving in the Futrono area Feb 24, 1949.

By then he had grown a beard to conceal his identity, and carried documents stating he was Antonio Ruiz Lagorreta, supposedly an ornithologist.

Jorge Bellet, manager of a landholding in the area, brought the fugitive poet to the Flores brothers, giving them a peremptory order: “This is the most crucial responsibility of your lives. You must accompany this man, safe and sound, to Argentina. If we fail I will shoot myself, but first I will kill the two of you.”

Experienced mountain guides, experts in the routes used for smuggling cattle and merchandise, Juan and Juvenal Flores completed their mission. It was not until 1998, thanks to Basoalto, that the two men learned they had saved the life of one of the 20th century’s luminaries of Spanish-language poetry.

“There they were. and they still believed they had committed a serious crime. They didn’t dare speak,” the filmmaker said of his encounter with the now elderly Flores brothers.

Neruda’s whereabouts were kept secret until Apr 25, 1949, when he appeared in Moscow as a guest of honour at the first World Peace Congress.

Thus began an exile that lasted until Aug 12, 1952, when Neruda returned to Chile after all legal charges against him had been lifted.

When he left Chile in 1949, so the story goes, Neruda carried in his pack a bottle of wine and the manuscript of “Canto General” (Epic Song), perhaps his most monumental political-poetic work, camouflaged by a false title – “Risas y Lágrimas” (Laughter and Tears) – by an also false poet, Benigno Espinoza.

“Canto General” was published in Mexico in 1950 with illustrations by the famed muralists David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera. That same year, clandestine copies of the book could be found circulating in Chile.

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