Violeta Went to Heaven: Sundance Film Review

Violeta Went to Heaven

World Dramatic Competition

Biography of Chile’s famed folk musician intrigues but doesn’t fully engage.

The prize-winning biopic spotlights the legacy and tumultuous life of Chilean musician and folklorist Violeta Parra.

PARK CITY — Winner of the Sundance World Cinema Dramatic Jury Prize at this year’s festival, Andrés Wood’s film is an unconventional biopic about renowned Chilean musician and folklorist Violeta Parra that awkwardly blends melodrama with elements of magical realism. Although Violeta Went to Heaven hints at the artistic vitality of the Chilean folk hero’s life, the execution is too oblique to have much of an impact. Spanish-language fests and markets will respond favorably to Chile’s official Oscar entry, but the likelihood of theatrical exposure elsewhere is slim.

Parra came to prominence for her passionate revival and performance of Chilean folk songs -- as well as her original songwriting -- which helped popularize the South American “Nueva Cancion” movement that spread throughout many Spanish-speaking countries. The acoustic style typically adopted folk song traditions, emphasizing social justice issues and the struggles of the poor. Her most famous song, “Gracias a la Vida,” has been covered by many other musicians from South America and beyond. Parra was also a renowned artist in a variety of different media.

Parra (Francisca Gavilán) was born in 1917 and grew up in southern Chile with her siblings and widowed father (Christian Quevedo), a schoolteacher and guitarist, who eventually died of alcoholism. As a young woman, she participated in a traveling musical troupe with other family members, gathering traditional songs from around the country, before moving to Europe with her lover, Swiss flautist Gilbert Favre (Thomas Durand), where she further developed her contemporary folk style and was selected to display her paintings at the Louvre. Returning to Chile, she split with Favre, leading a life of increasing isolation before her suicide in 1967.

Wood selects several strands of Parra’s biography to emphasize in the film, including her tumultuous childhood, European sojourn, doomed romance with Favre and her popularization of the “Nueva Cancion Chilena” style. Instead of telling her story chronologically, however, Wood frames her biography with a reenacted TV interview and then interweaves the narrative strands out of sequence. For viewers unfamiliar with Parra’s life, the effect can be rather disorienting, particularly when interspersed with fanciful sequences in a more expressionistic style.

As Parra, Gavilán inhabits the songwriter’s role so passionately that there’s little nuance to her performance, it’s so full of emotionality and drama. The film’s episodic structure makes it difficult for many of the supporting cast members to adequately register, since their appearances are so incidental. Production values are impressive and the variety of South American and European locations adds visual variety. The soundtrack is provided by a selection of Parra’s songs with guitar accompaniment.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, World Cinema Competition
Cast: Francisca Gavilán, Thomas Durand, Luis Machín, Gabriela Aguilera, Roberto Farías
Director: Andrés Wood
Screenwriter: Eliseo Altunaga
Producers: Patricio Pereira
Executive producers: Patricio Pereira, Pablo Rovito, Fernando Sokolowicz, Denise Gomes, Paula Cosenza
Director of photography: Miguel Ioann Littin
Production designer: Rodrigo Bazaes
Editor: Andrea Chignoli
Sales: Latido Films
No rating, 110 minutes