Andrés Wood’s intense biography is based on the life of Violeta Parra, the Chiliean singer-songwriter and artist who came from humble beginnings but whose talent and aspirations brought her to international fame. Violeta se fue a los cielos (Violeta Went To Heaven) was Chile’s Oscar submission and won the Sundance World Cinema Dramatic Jury Prize at last year’s festival.
The film is certainly no Walk the Line, James Mangold’s movie based on the life of Johnny Cash and starring Joaquin Phoenix, and by that I mean it is far from a conventional biopic. Steering clear away from linearity, Parra’s turbulent and vibrant life is echoed in the film’s format as her life events are chaotically presented out of sequence.
There is much to tell here, this is a woman who is likened to a Chilean Bob Dylan, and succeeded across multiple creative mediums. Her key life events are juxtaposed with entertaining footage of a reenacted interview she did in 1962. Wood focuses on her upbringing with her alcoholic, guitarist father (Christian Quevedo); her performances in a travelling band with her siblings; her search for authentic folk music in remote villages; going solo in Poland, where she discovered in a letter that her baby daughter had died; her time in Paris, where she took her art to the Louvre and had it exhibited; and her tumultuous relationship with Gilbert Favre (Thomas Durand).
The most striking features of this biopic are the beautiful, guitar based Chilean folk songs that enjoy a large presence throughout, and Francisca Galivan’s striking central performance. Gavilan presents an outrageously confident, driven and passionate figure who speaks and sings her mind. Her performance turns the dial up as far as it will go, and has no time for subtlety, but this is her intention and she does it well.
The leaps back and forward in time could have been disorientating, but mostly the result is mesmerizing and absorbing. Frequently we are taken back to Violeta’s childhood, watching her examine her face in a small mirror and make a mess eating fruit. It is a very sensory film that pays much attention to the richness of place and landscape, boasting impressive production values. Many scenes unfold with a series of expressionistic images that tinker on the edges of magic realism. It could be argued that this style is a little self conscious. Yet the ambitious, dream-like style is a welcome change from standard biopic fare and altogether suits the artistic portrait it captures. Violeta se fue a los cielos is slightly overlong, but a recommended insight into the life of a unique talent which can perhaps be captured by the statement of a Louvre curator: “Leonardo Da Vinci ended up here, but Violeta Parra began here”.