[5 April 2013]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“I don’t mean to be rude, but you’re Indian, aren’t you?” The questioner, a TV talk show host, is off screen, while his interview subject appears in a closeup so tight that you can only see her eyes, in grainy-black-and-white, an obviously faux vintage video. She’s Violeta Parra (Francisca Gavilán), renowned Chilean folk singer, folklorist, poet, tapestry maker, and painter, here sitting for a fictional TV appearance. She answers his question with one of her own: “Why would it be rude to call me an Indian?”
This brief moment in Violeta Went to Heaven lays out some fundamental tensions in Andrés Wood’s evocation of the artist’s life, some subtle, some overt. From early images of the child cramming berries into her mouth to roughhewn shots of the teenager emulating home movies, the movie conjures a Violeta torn between her great gifts and her sense of responsibility, her public and private lives, her past and present, and also her forceful self-expression and also, her various self-performances.
If these many facets of Violeta aren’t precisely contradictory, they are fraught, as s the film, which uses a range of formats to intimate, at least, the range of Violeta’s experiences. While some scenes approximate biopic-ish reenactment and some, like the TV interview clips, draw attention to the artifice of recreating or remembering a life, other scenes are more plainly dreamlike, imagining what Violeta might have felt or faced at a point of crisis or revelation.
As a woman who took seriously her role as a representative for a culture and—to a complicated extent—a nation, Violeta was pressured to perform in certain ways and in specific venues. At the forefront of the Nueva canción chilena (Chilean’ New Song), a folk music revival during the ‘50s and ‘60s. She conformed and resisted, often at the same time and also at various costs. Based on her son Angel’s memoir, the film traces her childhood in San Carlos, her adoration and resentment of her father, a charismatic music teacher and local singer who often took his wages in drink and bestowed his wavering affections on women drawn to his celebrity, however limited. Her memories of Nicanor (Cristian Quevedo) are rendered in a series of flashbacks emphasizing his appeals, in the classroom or in a saloon. When little Violeta endeavors distract him during a performance that’s become a seduction, pressing her fingers into his guitar strings, he pulls her close to him and the instrument, declaring, “You are the cleverest one, you sprang out fully formed from your mother’s belly.”
With little mention of her peasant mother Clarisa, appears here to assume her own mythic dimensions, early on leaving the acting troupe with whom she performs Christ plays in to order to sing her own music, demonstrating her ability and her drive when she steps out on stage following one play, using the already assembled audience of farmers and accompanying herself with a drum, her lyrics celebrating the freedom of a singing bird. Just so, she goes on, even as a young wife (to a railroad worker) and mother, to escape and make use of the gifts from her father, his art and his guitar. Like Nicanor but also not like him—as a woman’s social and political limits are so differently pronounced—Violeta suffers for her choices.
Far from home, performing and occasionally homeless in Europe, she determines both to share more of herself and her background, and also to refine her politics. She adopts a “primitive” style that encompasses anti-colonialist themes in her and indicates her involvement with the Communist Party. Producing framed works that combine embroidery and painting, she becomes the first Latin American artist to exhibit at the Louvre Museum: the TV interview frames the novelty like this: I” didn’t know that your work was at such a high level,” observes the interviewer, to which Violeta responds, defiantly, “I did, that’s why I took it there and why they accepted it.”
While Violeta’s self-confidence is legendary, so too is her complexity, her bouts of loneliness and depression (she died by self-inflicted gunshot in 1967), her lifelong struggle to feel both global acceptance and specific identification. In Europe, she’s treated as an “Indian,” enduring racism and righteously angry (following one performance, she walks through the expensively dressed listeners muttering, “Deaf, deaf, deaf”). She also meets the Swiss flautist Gilbert Favre (Thomas Durand), with whom she shares a longtime, turbulent relationship, punctuated by assorted jealousies and passionate debates over art and politics.
Even as she distrusts men, the film—which is based on her son Angel’s memoir—Violeta remains committed to the idea that art can transform lives. She designs a “university of folklore” back in Chile, housed in tents. Here she hopes to stage live music and other sorts of exhibitions, an ambitious enterprise that is, much like the movie, at once expansive and precise, a messy assembly of dreams and hopes affected inevitably by material circumstances, lack of funding and, ultimately, interest. Even as Violeta here recedes from view, as her hair hides her face or mirrors and lenses frame her movements, Violeta Goes to Heaven never reduces the many complexities of the woman and her times.