I don’t think I’ve seen a film by the Chilean director Andrés Wood before and I wasn’t familiar with the work of the subject of this film Violeta Parra (1917-67). Wood’s 2004 film Machuca has been on my waiting list for films to watch on DVD for some time so I jumped at the chance to see this new film which was the Chilean entry for the 2013 Foreign Language Oscar.
Violeta turns out to be an unusual form of biopic. Music (or more generally ‘artist’) biopics have tended to replace the 1930s and 1940s fascination with politicians and national heroes. Conventional films of this genre feature familiar aspects of the artist’s life – discovery, first success, fame, struggles with integrity, decline etc. Wood offers something very different, ‘layering’ snatches of Violeta’s career one on top of another, out of chronological order, in such a way that we build up an impression of passionate and proud artist, not prepared to put up with audiences or commissioners who don’t appreciate her work. We keep returning to an interview on television in 1962 in which she responds to a particularly unpleasant interviewer. She came from a poor background and she attempted to keep alive aspects of Chilean folk culture in her music and her painting. She performed in Poland and painted in Paris and she fought the conservative establishment in Chile. She died before the dictatorship of Pinochet attacked many of her fellow artists. No hagiography this, it shows Violeta as a woman with desire, anger and demons whose relationships with her children were not straightforward – the script is based on writings by her son. The film looks good with cinematographer Miguel Ioann Littin Menz finding ways to represent the dusty plains and Andes trails of Chile as well as Paris and other locations.
Violeta Parra was a major figure in Chilean culture, I have discovered. She led performers into a New Chilean Song movement of folk-based socially committed music which spread throughout Latin America and throughout Iberian culture generally from the 1960s. I’ve no idea whether or not Francisca Gavilán’s portrayal is ‘authentic’ but it certainly worked for me and her performance of many of Violeta’s songs was stunning – I was especially taken by the songs delivered in a powerful voice of thudding drum beats which were quite mesmerising. But perhaps the most dramatic song in the film is about the Sparrowhawk and the Hen – a song with metaphorical meaning for Violeta. Cornerhouse Cinema 2 was packed for the screening but I don’t know if there is a distributor prepared to release a title like this in the UK. Unlike the Frida Kahlo biopic Frida (US 2002) there are no star names known in Europe and North America. Violeta se fue a los cielos is showing again in Viva at 20.40 on Saturday evening and it is well worth a visit. I should see it again.