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Movie review: 'Violeta Went to Heaven' portrays Violeta Parra's life

Andrés Wood's impressionistic film about the internationally known Chilean musician played by Francisca Gavilán is intense and turbulent like Parra.

April 18, 2013|By Sheri Linden
  • A scene from "Violeta Went to Heaven."
A scene from "Violeta Went to Heaven." (Kino Lorber, Inc. )

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.

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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.

Wood and Gavilán don't downplay that suffering, but neither do they make it a cause for canonization. What some see as modern in Parra, she sees as primitive. Complicated and not always likable, she often gives in to ungovernable desire and to a sense of defeat that shadows her, all the while playing a guitar "full of bird song."

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"Violeta Went to Heaven." No MPAA rating; in Spanish, French and Polish with English subtitles. 1 hour, 50 minutes. At Laemmle's Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena.

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