Violeta Parra grew up in poverty in rural Chile and became an internationally recognized musician, her songs covered by such luminaries as Joan Baez and Shakira. With its grand arc, her story would fit nicely into the standard biopic format, but director Andrés Wood wisely opts for a more impressionistic approach in "Violeta Went to Heaven."
His feature matches its subject in turbulence and intensity, scrambling chronology in a revelatory way. Francisca Gavilán's lead performance burns with a dark radiance that's anything but self-congratulatory.
Complaint and protest run through Parra's songs. As an ethnographer she spurred a revival of Chile's folk music traditions and was a key figure in the nueva canción movement that began in the 1960s, infusing folk-inspired singing with political awareness. With its clarity and depth, Gavilan's singing is as good as her acting. One of the film's most affecting moments, though, belongs to an old man singing an old song at his grandchild's wake.
Woven through scenes from Parra's life is a fictional TV interview that neatly conveys the way she stands apart from the establishment. Her interlocutor is more interested in labeling her a communist than in examining why she calls her voice one of suffering.