Eda Cleary, in Sunday Observer, 24 September 2023.… with highlighting imposed by the Editor, Thuppahi
The film Alborada by director Asoka Handagama was premiered in Chile recently with the Director of the Film School of the University of Valparaiso, film professor Rodrigo Cepeda, inviting academics, students and interested people to see the film.
After the screening, a “film forum” was also organised with the participation of the Director of the Publishing House of the University of Valparaíso Jovana Skármeta, Karin Berlien, Director of the Division of Equality and Diversity, and Dr. Eda Cleary, sociologist and author of several essays on Neruda in the East. Also present were the Dean of the Faculty of Architecture Alejando Witt and the Director of the University’s Theatre School Claudio Marín.
The film was shown with Spanish subtitles, prepared by film professor Luciana Pinilla. Its projection was impeccable in terms of colour, image and sound.
Alborada had a deep impact on the Chilean audience for being an aesthetically beautiful film in terms of its landscapes, its music and its exceptional historical recreation. The casting was considered excellent, with Malcolm Machado as Rathnaigh and José Luis Romero as Neruda. The staging of two triangles of characters: one male and one female: i.e. Neruda-Wendt-Rathnaigh, and Josie-Patsy- and the Sakkili girl to unfold the story that took place in 1929 turned out to be brilliant and allowed the audience to understand it in a modern logic.
Asoka Handagama unravels from the pages of “I confess that I have lived”, published in 1974, an interpretation never before seen in cinema of what Neruda called “an encounter between a man and a statue” with a woman from the lowest strata of the caste of the untouchables. The neo-feminist movement had already expressed itself critically about the same event and called it “rape”.
At the film forum on Alborada, Chileans were surprised by Asoka’s artistic audacity as a male filmmaker to tackle such a sensitive subject as Neruda’s sexuality as a 24-year-old in Ceylon.Few dare to film a raw story about the man who would later become a world-class poet and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, especially because the young Neruda was different from the poetic colossus that would emerge over the years. In Ceylon in 1929 Neruda was an experimental young man. He came into contact with opium consumption and was fundamentally apolitical. It is precisely in this context that Alborada is highly interesting.
With the question of Neruda’s sexuality at the centre of the action in Alborada, the audience is naturally given the opportunity to reflect on his patriarchal and narcissistic actions. Asoka directs with a firm hand the crudeness in the scene of the rape of the Sakkili girl, acted very well by the actress Rithika Kodithuwakku. However, theatre actor Andrés García said that if the audience did not know that the story of Alborada is about Pablo Neruda, it could apply to any story of patriarchal abuse in the world. For this reason it could be said that Alborada achieves universal validity.
The other question that haunted the film forum is whether Neruda’s poetic work can be censored as neo-feminists and many Chilean women in the university have argued because of a rape that occurred in the last century. Karin Berlien, who called the film “very violent”, saw it as a platform for “denunciation” and “revision” of Neruda’s work. Others argued that it is not possible to cancel Neruda’s work because it already belongs to the readers. His poems are of worldwide validity. Especially those about nature, the history of Latin America, the greatness and suffering of the oppressed peoples contained in “Canto General”.
Another attendee at the premiere of Alborada, a great admirer of Neruda’s poetry, commented: “Asoka killed Neruda”, a sign of the emotional state of mind caused by seeing facts on the screen that were previously only known in writing. In this sense, Handagama’s films are moving, and at the same time enlightening for both male and female audiences.
In general the fates of the female characters in Asoka’s screenplay achieve their own salvation: Josie, the Burmese lover who chases him to Ceylon, understands that she has to leave for her sake back to Burma, Patsy does not stop in her way of life because her relationship with Neruda is only carnal and therefore, replaceable, and the drama of the girl will be symbolically resolved in a surprising way. Alborada could be qualified in this sense as a feminist film.
As for the censorship demanded by many women on social networks of Neruda’s work, the positions of those present were divided into two: those who separate his personal life from Neruda’s genius in his work, and those who want to cancel both his person and his poetry. On this point, there is an issue of value clashes that has been changing over time.
At the forum, it was also commented that it was necessary to be frank about the fact that sexual violence in Chile against maids during Neruda’s time in Asia was similar in the country’s large agricultural cattle ranches,where the bosses did what they wanted with the humble women. The abuses were known, but society allowed this abuse because of the low valuation of women and high levels of class discrimination.
The fact that Neruda is known in Chile and throughout Latin America as an acclaimed poet and a great fighter against social injustice,makes it difficult to receive other stages of his life that were under the shadows of machismo.
What has remained in the memory of people in general is that he was also a progressive politician, a loyal friend and a companion in the struggles of Salvador Allende until the end of both their lives after the military coup in 1973. Perhaps because of this, Chilean audiences are ambivalent in their interpretation of the facts. Some spoke of a growing “mistreatment” of Neruda in the wake of this story.
What is obvious is that if Neruda had not written about this dark episode in his memoirs, no one would know what happened. Perhaps he sought redemption through the belated confession. But, in the face of the impunity that followed, one can only try to understand why things happened that way and not another.
Asoka Handagama succeeds in communicating to the audience in the final two scenes of Alborada the real existential despair of the characters in a male clash between Neruda and his servant Rathnaigh that leaves the audience intrigued. But the most unexpected is undoubtedly the last scene when the girl emerges from the past into Wellawatta’s present from the depths of the ocean. The audience was stunned for seconds, only to react and elucidate the true meaning that the ending might have in the present day.
Alborada will be one to talk about. The launch in Valparaíso was before an academic audience knowledgeable about Neruda’s work and the complexities of his biography. Many wondered what effect this film might have in Chile when it is marketed and shown to the general public. There will be no intellectual analytical filters, but Alborada will speak for itself and its characters will be seen for what they are: men and women of flesh and blood subjected to the force of historical time and the destiny that befell them.
The experience of screening “Alborada” in Chile showed once again that cinema as an art form is capable of bringing people from so many different countries together to talk, to confront different points of view and to dialogue freely in such difficult times as those of yesteryear. Chilean audiences who saw Alborada were fascinated by Asoka Handagama as an extraordinary film director. This film will remain in the retina and in the hearts of those who saw it.