'The Wandering Soap Opera' ('La telenovela errante'): Film Review | Locarno 2017

Courtesy of Locarno Film Festival
The Restless Days.

Filmmaker Raul Ruiz, who died in 2011, shot a jocular commentary on and in his native Chile in 1990, and that film has now finally been finished by his widow, Valeria Sarmiento.

The late Chilean but Europe-based filmmaker Raul Ruiz died in 2011, after he had fully completed one of his best works, The Mysteries of Lisbon, and initiated another ambitious project, The Lines of Wellington, which his wife, filmmaker and editor Valeria Sarmiento, finished in his stead in 2012. Not a lot of people were aware that there was another unfinished Ruiz project hiding in a drawer somewhere: A Wandering Soap Opera (Una telenovela errante), the result of six days of acting workshops and shooting in Ruiz’s native Chile in 1990 that was shot but never edited together and scored. After the 16mm material came back to light, Sarmiento, who still had a typewritten screenplay, put together the current feature. His 121st film project premiered, rather appropriately, in competition at the Locarno Film Festival, where Ruiz’s debut feature, Three Sad Tigers, won the Golden Leopard back in 1969.

This frequently hilarious and more than a little absurd look at the political soul of Chile in a time of transition — Ruiz, who had been exiled to Europe, returned home for this project right after Pinochet was voted out of office in 1989 — is fascinating even if some of the allusions will go way over the head of audiences less familiar with the country’s recent history. It also rambles in places but, given the film’s title, that is to be expected. This Wandering Soap Opera should see solid interest from festivals and VOD channels, with niche theatrical distribution possible in Ruiz-friendly territories in especially Europe and South America.

The film is divided into seven “days,” with each day corresponding to one sequence that was shot over the course of one day. Most of the sequences are related in more thematic rather than directly narrative ways, though several characters do pop up more than once. Throughout the film, it is useful to have the motto for the seventh day segment, “If you behave badly in this life, you’ll become a Chilean in the next,” in the back of your mind, as it explains where Ruiz was coming from when he put the material together.

The first sequence, titled Day 1: People Are Watching Us, is immediately the film’s best. It offers a hilarious pastiche of the telenovelas of the title. Two characters, a man and a married woman, talk about their illicit relationship in the comfort of a tastefully appointed, houseplant-filled bourgeois home. His remark that he likes her left leg more than her right leg finally leads her to ask whether he is left- or right wing, politically. This leads to the confession that he’s a socialist and sets up a brief discussion about his thoughts on divorce (a lot of socialists were Catholic so this is a complex issue). All this lead to the first of quite a few major punchlines (spoiler): She wants to divorce his brother so she can be with her left leg-loving lover.

Throughout, the dialogue is overripe in that typical telenovela way and the actors have a ball as they take everything way too seriously, enunciating every word with great care and drawing out each look for dramatic effect. In the span of less than 15 minutes, Ruiz manages to makes some salient points about how politics are, in the end, always personal while continuously poking fun at the convoluted nature of Chilean politics (“The Chamber of Commerce is plotting against us!” one of the characters exclaims very earnestly).

The blocking and mise-en-scene, too, provide hints on how to read the entire situation. The camera frames the man from a low angle, making him look like a giant, while it literally looks down on the woman from above, making it clear how society does not see the two as equals, even if she seems to be the more rationally lucid of the two and the one more in touch with her own emotions and desires. For added dramatic effect, the omnipresent houseplants cast serrated shadows over both characters, suggesting visually how what they are up to is something secret and illicit.

Ruiz thus manages to retool the specific spoken and visual language of telenovelas for his own ends, turning the over-the-top dramatics of soaps into an exploration of the complex political situation in Chile. As in the other sequences, the central notion that (political) life in Chile is completely exaggerated and over the top and not something that’s very credible comes through loud and clear.

Day two looks at an office worker with absurdly hairy palms who, on the phone, complains he doesn’t “only want an intellectual relationship.” Though the joke isn’t fully sustained for the length of the segment, this desire is indeed hilarious because the person on the other end of the line seems to be completely illiterate. There’s also a much darker undertone that surfaces at the end of the sequence, when it becomes clear where the man works.

The film’s second-best sketch comes third and takes the country’s politically motivated violence to a comically absurd level. What initially starts as a conversation between two men in a car (clearly shot in a studio), with Ruiz making fun of the different kinds of Spanish spoken in Latin America, finally becomes a hilarious pile-up of bodies as guerrilla fighters come to kill the two men and then different guerrilla fighters appear to kill the killers and so forth. The sequence works on a purely farcical level — “Did you shoot four people with two bullets?” asks one of the second pair of killers — but is also a pointed commentary on the disorganized nature of guerrilla fighting in South America, where ideologies and methods are copied from one another without any understanding of the real aims of their actions and so-called revolutions. It also satirizes how actual violence can be sold to the masses with the right marketing (something soaps and entertainment of course do for fictional violence).

The remaining segments aren’t as strong as they further try to extend the soap opera metaphor into increasingly surreal ways that include some soap-within-the-film as well. The last "day," especially, feels more like a bit of absurdist theater gone wrong than something that’s a clear extension of the exaggerated televisual style of everything that has come before it. Nonetheless, on the whole, this is a worthy addition to Ruiz’s enormous output with some of his trademark enigmatic opacity sprinkled over some of the smartest and wittiest output to have emerged from the year in cinema that was 1990. Ruiz regular Jorge Arriagada wrote the appropriately soapy score.

In 1990:

Cast: Luis Alarcon, Patricia Rivadeneira, Francisco Reyes, Consuelo Castillo, Roberto Poblete, Liliana Garcia, Mauricio Pesutic, Leticia Garrido, Marcial Edwards
Writer-director: Raul Ruiz
Producer: Andres Racz
Executive producers: Raul Ruiz, Leo Kocking
Directors of photography: Leo Kocking, Hector Rios
Production designer: Pia Rey
Costume designer: Dalia Haymann
Casting: Raquel Salinas

In 2017:

Production company: Poetastros
Director: Valeria Sarmiento
Producer: Enrique Leon
Director of photography: Rodrigo Aviles
Editor: Galut Alarcon
Music: Jorge Arriagada
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Competition)

In Spanish
80 minutes