“If you behave badly in this life, you become a Chilean in the next one” – on Raúl Ruiz and Valeria Sarmiento’s La Telenovela Errante
The 70th edition of the Locarno Film Festival had a treat for its cinemagoers. Six years after the death of the Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz, who made more than one hundred features in diverse genres, we saw the premiere of his new feature film. La Telenovela Errante (The Wandering Soap Opera) was filmed in 1990 and finished in 2017 by Ruiz’s wife, Valeria Sarmiento. Sarmiento made sense of the footage discovered in places such as the Chilean Cinemateca, the film archive at Duke University, as well as the basement of a sound recorder. She added her own footage, mostly intermissions and shots of old televisions, and created a structure.
Locarno seems like the natural place to have premiered the film: in 1969 the festival gave Ruiz his first major award, the Golden Leopard, for his first feature. Ruiz made La Telenovela Errante shortly after years in exile in France (he had come to Chile before, during the dictatorship, but had to hide), and was just coming to terms with the young democracy after Pinochet had stepped down in 1988. Ruiz tackles a society that was numbed by television in the 1980s by using the aesthetics (baroque set design, painted backdrops, overuse of props), actors, usual plots and excessive gestures of soap operas (“telenovelas” or “comedias” in Chile). In this way, La Telenovela Errante works mostly as an absurdist comedy aimed at Chile’s status quo. It tackles the childish pride that Chileans had of their newly reconstructed, although still weak, democratic structures.
With a keen eye for rhizomatic structures, the film is divided into seven days (around the fiction that Ruiz filmed for seven days). Every sketch works as a world of its own, a soap opera that’s playing for an audience on TV. The characters in the soaps, however, are conscious that they are just acting and that they exist merely in the realm of serialized entertainment. They can watch other soap operas; the same actors can play different characters, and sometimes one, two or an entire group of characters can cross-over from one soap opera to “the one next door”, giving the illusion of eternal parallel universes where infinite fictions are playing out on infinite televisions that are ubiquitous in each sequence. The sets in which these sequences take place are also extremely self-referential, as if Ruiz wasn’t just using the soap-opera aesthetic to critique the Chilean society, but at the same time to create distance, and to point out how soap operas themselves contain distancing elements by making such elements more apparent.
Ruiz heavily worked the script with the actors and crewmembers, to make a communal film under the guise of a workshop, to point out problems in the young Chilean democracy. Some dialogues comment on how those who returned from exile took economic advantage of the new situation, or how they just returned and left their wives behind to marry younger women, or else became politically inert after being active in banishment. The language is filled with irreverence towards those who came back as heroes. It is only with 27 years of hindsight that one can realize the adequacy of Ruiz’s scathing tone. The rampant capitalistic system instituted by Pinochet has been maintained thanks to the politicians who came back from exile. The fact that Ruiz in 1990 was able to point all that out only augments the way in which he was a pioneer and visionary of what constitutes being a Chilean: a strange way of speaking Spanish, a constant contradiction between what people do and say, and passivity in looking at how the world changes.
In spite of living in France and establishing himself as a European filmmaker, Ruiz sees being Chilean as being cursed: one can never escape the presence of such an enigmatic and strange country. According to Ruiz, to be Chilean is to never escape being one, which means that “we make fun of ourselves so no one else can do it”, “shocking things happen but we don’t believe in them”, and, most famously, “to insist on being Chilean is like insisting on having the flu, but all the same it’s a country that persists and [so] exists.” Ruiz’s beliefs permeate his filmography, in which he mentions cities by passing, adapts Chilean authors, and makes veiled references, from Chilean seaweed to actors speaking “Chilean Spanish,” notoriously hard to understand even by other Spanish speakers.
As one of the best and most delightful films of the year, a camp, absurdist comedy whose biting satire ripens with hindsight, La Telenovela Errante testifies to the defeat (and triumph) of a director who for seventeen years tried to get away from Chile yet could never leave it behind.