A portrait of Chilean folk singer, poet, sculptor, tapestry maker, and painter Violeta Parra (a perfectly cast Francisca Gavilán), Violeta Went to Heaven alternates a traditional biopic mode of storytelling, rooted in the events of her life, with much more interesting and playful sequences that convey aesthetically what it must have felt like to be her, or around her. Based on the memoirs written by Parra’s daughter, Ángela, the film depicts Parra as a fearless, eccentric, and selfish genius of sorts, for whom music and art in general trumped the exigencies of motherhood and coupledom; one day she simply decides she’ll start painting and that the Louvre will just have to show her work. Absorbed by a narcissistic ambition that can sometimes pass for socially utopian, she builds a “university of folklore” on a precarious land full of tents, able to navigate whatever political and financial hurdles rather smoothly, paying for her daughter’s labor with kisses and for her boyfriend’s with ingratitude.
A fictionalized television interview with a renowned and well-established Parra reflecting back on her life serves as an anchoring device for the storytelling, a device as tiresome as Sean Penn’s cassette tape recording in Milk.Violeta Went to Heaven also suffers from an overtly conventional way of depicting the life events of an anything-but-conventional woman, a lazy flaw further highlighted by its brief moments of visual experimentation. These are quite beautiful, as the impeccable biopic aesthetics give way to Violeta’s 16mm black-and-white Bolex footage and prolonged silences. In these instances the camera gets wobbly, the sharpness of the lens less accurate, the mise-en-scène less literal. It’s a relief from the suffocating idea that recounting a person’s life necessarily means acting out her memories without the chaotic distortions that are inherent to memory. A scene of a hand pouring red wine in a glass insistently as it overflows is particularly striking.
Most of the film is stitched together by performances of Parra’s songs, which mesmerized the common Chilean man and the fussy Parisian bourgeoisie alike. (The music is so stunningly melancholy it makes one wish this were actually a musical along the lines of Carlos Saura’s Fados, Tango, and Flamenco.) The film’s more beautifully photographed surrealist imagery, uncommitted to chronology or evident reason, seems to say much more about Parra’s own commitment to life and the articulation of her poesis than any drama. The narrative sequences feel almost soap opera-like when compared to the unspeakable sadness, and the gravitas, conveyed by Parra’s lyrics and rhythm.