Chilean Master Raul Ruiz's Unfinished First Film Gets Restored and Scheduled for Premiere

Courtesy of Poetastros
'The Tango of the Widower'

'The Tango of the Widower,' the late director's 1967 debut, was recently found and is now in postproduction under the artistic direction of his widow and collaborator, Valeria Sarmiento.

Chilean production company Poetastros has restored Raul Ruiz's recently found unfinished debut film, The Tango of the Widower (1967), which is set to premiere in a top tier European festival next year, according to producer Chamila Rodriguez. The completion and postproduction of the pic is being overseen under the artistic direction of Ruiz’s widow and collaborator, Valeria Sarmiento.

Written and directed by the then-27-year-old Ruiz, Tango of the Widower, starring Rubén Sotoconil, Claudia Paz, Luis Alarcón, Shenda Román and Delfina Guzmán, was shot in Santiago de Chile. The production was set to become Ruiz’s debut feature film, but he was forced to abandon the project due to lack of funding for the movie's sound design.

"The future will be responsible for giving this film sound, which today is being stored silent," said Ruiz in an interview at the time.

Following Tango of the Widower, Ruiz quickly moved on to work on his groundbreaking Three Sad Tigers, which premiered in 1968 and shared the Golden Leopard Award at the Locarno Film Festival. The film became a landmark of Latin American cinema and launched the extensive career of the director, who was forced into exile by Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship in 1973. Ruiz went on to helm over 120 films and become one of the most revered filmmakers in Europe, working with stars like Catherine Deneuve, Marcello Mastroianni and John Malkovich until his death in Paris in 2011.

A set of 35mm rolls containing Tango of the Widower's original silent footage was found by Sarmiento and the producers in the cellar of an old theater in Santiago de Chile in 2016, during their research for Ruiz’s unfinished 1990 film The Wandering Soap Opera, which premiered in 2017 at Locarno.

Lip-reading and body-language experts were involved in the restoration work, as well as renowned local actors like Sergio Hernandez (Gloria, A Fantastic Woman), who dubbed the original stars.  

Playwright Omar Saavedra Santis joined Sarmiento in the reconstruction of the film script, while musician Jorge Arriagada, a regular collaborator of Ruiz and Sarmiento, completed the score.

Ruiz’s own synopsis said Tango of the Widower revolves around "a man whose wife has committed suicide and appears to him as a ghost. The ghost follows him everywhere, under the bed, under tables. … After seeing the ghost so frequently, the man begins to resemble her, becoming more and more feminine, in a spiral in which we discover that he was never really married and that what is really going on is his personality doubling and a schizophrenic game.”

According to the production notes, Sarmiento used a handwritten text from one of Ruiz's notebooks describing his intention to provide the pic with a spiral structure intervened by a "narrative mirror." The text has been a key to decipher the footage and articulate the structure of the film in two parts: the original and "its double," with the aim to "produce a new narrative territory that provides ideas for a new language and new interpretations."

The Tango of the Widower will become a foundational piece in the puzzle of [Ruiz's] work,” said Sarmiento. "For me, completing his first feature film is a way to materialize this dialogue that comes directly from the world of dreams, where we make films as if following improvised cooking recipes, and invent with the elements that we have at hand. That's why neither he nor I will ever stop filming."