Pablo Neruda, considered by Gabriel García Márquez as “the greatest poet of the 20th century in all languages”, is back in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in an extraordinary film called “Alborada”. It was written and directed by Asoka Handagama, one of the greatest filmmakers in Sri Lanka today.
Asoka Handagama has a long and successful career as a filmmaker, playwright. He first studied mathematics at the University of Kelaniya in his home country, then development economics at the University of Warwick in England. He served as Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka.
He currently devotes himself entirely to cinema and art.
“Alborada” has been invited to participate in the 34th Tokyo International Film Festival in October 2021. The film has not yet been released in theaters, but it is already causing a lot of talk. The trailer is visible on Youtube. The theme of the festival was “Crossing Borders”, which sought to present cross-cultural stories, and the story of Pablo Neruda in ancient Ceylon is certainly one of them.
The film takes place in the former colonial Ceylon during the years 1929-1930, a period during which Pablo Neruda, 25, already author of the famous book “20 love poems and a song of despair”, took the comes as an honorary from Chile. Consul in the island, after having exercised similar functions in Burma.
The script is a fiction that is structured from Neruda’s own memories in “I confess that I have lived” (1974) in the chapter “The Luminous Solitude”, where he describes in seven lines how one day he is sexually forced on a Tamil. daughter, from the lowest caste of the Sakkili, considered “untouchable”:
“One morning, I decided to go all the way. I firmly grabbed her wrist and looked into her eyes. There was no language I could speak with her. Without a smile, she let herself be taken away and soon found herself naked in my bed. Her waist, so slender, her full hips, the cups overflowing from her breasts, looked like one of the thousand-year-old sculptures of South India. was the meeting of a man and a statue. She kept her eyes wide open all the while, completely unmoved. She was right to despise me. The experience was never repeated.”
Asoka Handagama, an admirer of Neruda’s work, was stunned to read this paragraph of the memoir and for over ten years had the idea of making a film about the incident. But it will be necessary to wait until 2021, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, for this dream to come true with the filming of “Alborada”. The title was inspired by the name Neruda had given to the house of his Ceylonese friend Lionel Wendt built in the elegant Cinnamon Gardens district of Colombo. Wendt was a musician, photographer, filmmaker and promoter of the arts in his country.
The plot of the film is based on the following sequence: Neruda arrives without luggage in Ceylon because he had just emerged from a so-called “terrorist” love affair with his Burmese lover Josie Bliss, to whom he had not told goodbye. When he made his social debut in Ceylon, he met Patsy, a Eurasian girl, with whom he had free sex without obligation. Just when he thought he was safe from Josie, she suddenly appears on his doorstep. Neruda keeps her out, forcing her to spend the nights on the streets, causing public outrage.
He hides and orders his servant Rathnaigh not to let her in. Meanwhile, Neruda continues intimate encounters with Patsy in secret from her Burmese ex-lover. Josie understands his disadvantage and decides to leave him and go home forever. Neruda is devastated and now turns his attention to the girl Sakkili, whose job it was to empty and clean her feces buckets from the lavatory every morning.
Neruda poetically fantasizes about this young woman, attributing goddess-like qualities to her due to her overwhelming resemblance to a sculpture of the goddess Parvathi that he kept in his living room. His Tamil servant Rhatnaigh, a staunch supporter of the caste system, fears for Neruda and himself because he believes that any contact with this “untouchable” caste would necessarily “dirty” them. Neruda is a stranger to this cultural tradition. For him, the relationship between a man and a woman does not go through caste. This is why he sees no obstacle to behaving like a conquering “macho” when he wants to possess a woman. The Sakkilie girl, used to her inferior position, does not accept Neruda’s attempts to approach her. But he insists and forces her in such a way that she has no alternative but to undergo a sexual assault for the sole carnal satisfaction of Neruda.
This image could have given rise to a number of different scenarios, starting with a simple voyeuristic version of what happened, a trivialization of the event, or perhaps simply its denial and/or justification. But that’s obviously not Asoka Handagama’s style. Judging by the surprising interweaving of the following scenes, and their unexpected denouement, where emerges a real explosion of pain, rage, despair and desire for salvation from each of the characters, Handagama triggers a process of reflection that leads to a frontal humanizing approach. At no time does “Alborada” force the viewer to side with the good guys against the bad guys as if it were a battle, where passion can’t give way to reason and understanding of what’s going on. happens.
Neruda had never been able to forget the contempt the Sakkilie girl felt for him. His ego was hurt so badly that shortly before his death, in his memoir, he decided to make a crude public confession about the incident and thereby expose a fact that is usually hidden.
Handagama’s great contribution is to have brought to the screen this story told in just seven lines with overwhelming complexity without falling into the temptation of light judgment.
The tremendous plot twist leaves many questions open, not only about the story that unfolded in 1929, but also about the relevance of those same conflicts in the present. Neruda is therefore only part of the chess game of history, for Asoka Handagama, a connoisseur of his culture, does not hesitate to reveal the world of brutal prejudices and superstitions that hung like a sword of Damocles over the “untouchables” Tamils. . Especially on women, within their own caste, they were the most discriminated against, then doubly by the society around them.
The film’s occasion couldn’t have been more controversial. Almost five decades had passed since the publication of Neruda’s memoir, which had been a resounding success. But times change, social movements change, and so do readers’ perceptions. A few years ago, global feminism labeled the story told by Neruda about the daughter Sakkilie a big patriarchal lie. Overnight, social media was filled with statements of anger at Neruda and the tone was to “cancel” Neruda. But the most widely read poet of the 20th century was nothing more than a sexual predator.
On the other front, die-hard Neruda supporters have gone on the offensive and their strategy has largely focused on minimizing the fact. Both positions have contributed to the trivialization and caricature of the complex origins of macho violence and toxicity, where the world is seen in black and white, divided between good and bad, superior and inferior. But life itself is more than that, and it is necessary to deepen this history. In this sense, “Alborada” succeeds.
Confronted with radical fundamentalist positions on this incident, Asoka Handagama tackles with creative audacity the dramatic subject of sexual violence, the dilemma of castes and the racism underlying “machismo”.
Neruda’s confused life in Wellawatte is masterfully illustrated. The poet appears as a labyrinthine, multiple and contradictory personality. He is both victim and executioner. He hides from Josie, is both cowardly, playful and adventurous, gets impatient, smokes opium, tries his luck with Patsy, but does not hesitate to protect a wife beaten by her fisherman husband in Wellawatta. Crucial to the story, however, is that this confusion is not enough to understand the violent incident with the Sakkilie girl. Asoka Handagama brutally but wisely lays bare the overwhelming destructive force of the patriarchal view of existence. From this incident, everyone is injured, and the most damaged, of course, is the Sakkilie girl.
The director of “Alborada” manages to bring the mature Neruda down from his poet-god pedestal without denying his immense talent and poetic genius. He humanizes it by pointing out his inability to free himself from the macho ballast of male domination and shows it in his own male labyrinth.
This film is irreplaceable when it comes to an unbiased discussion of the true poisoning that patriarchal ideology creates in human beings in every time, every occasion and in every culture. Starting from a precise narrative, it universalizes the discussion on the difficult approach to the question of gender, which is currently essentially taken under the influence of fundamentalist feminist positions which oscillate between the “culture of cancellation” and the traditional positions. of the culture of denial and silence. patriarchal violence.
Finally, “Alborada” is also a moving film with an excellent cast. The period staging gracefully opens the door to the past and makes us empathize with its protagonists. The handling of the camera to accurately capture the moods of the characters is remarkable. The colors, scenes, lighting and music will be an aesthetic delight for viewers.