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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Lips and Voices for Kissing and To Sing With
by Donald Levit

Without sister Carmen Luisa, siblings Isabel and Ángel established Peña de los Parra, music and culture clubs with political agendas. To judge by Violeta Went to Heaven/Violeta se fue a los cielos, the brother’s source memoir about his national-icon mother cannot be all that flattering, though Chile’s 2011 Oscar submission and a 2012 Sundance prize-winner and Lincoln Center LatinBeat entry is only “loosely based” on it, with Ángel as “creative adviser.”

Vaguely chronological, director and co-scenarist Andrés Wood’s biopic moves around a bit in time and location and once in a while cuts to an imagined television interview in which Violeta del Carman Parra Sandoval gives wisecrack answers which evade revealing much about herself.

The most prominent early proponent of La Nueva Canción Chilena Song Movement of folk techniques mixed with sociopolitical criticism -- its practitioners were killed or suppressed into exile after 1973 -- while alive the woman enjoyed greatest success in Europe performing and, for example, getting her folklore tapestries selected and exhibited in 1964 at the Louvre. Underappreciated on her return home, the singer-songwriter set up her “university of folklore,” a small Wolf Trap folk music center.

She was dogged by unhappiness, rejection and failed relationships and best known abroad through later covers of her “Gracias a la vida” (used only during end-credits). Repeated film returns to her little-girl self (Francisca Durán) stuffing her berry-stained face call up Charles Foster Kane’s lost Rosebud long-ago happiness. A little older (Guiselle Morales), she stays shyly apart near her beloved drunk music teacher and performer father Nicanor (Cristián Quevedo), on whose death the widowed mother and eight children begin their odyssey of market and tent-show performances ever closer to the capital.

Among the triumphs of Raging Bull is that of snaring the viewer into interest for a despicable character. The adult Violeta is not to be compared with odious Jake La Motta but is not an attractive figure, either, still less a comprehensible person apart from the label “self-destructive.”

Flashes of her girl-face show her fingering the pockmarks that become more noticeable in the woman. As played by Francisca Gavilán, who also does a fine job singing, she is aware of her own physical unattractiveness. Yet, while she refuses to be condescended to or discriminated against for her gender, mixed blood or nationality, the film personage does nothing to endear herself and, in fact, a lot to turn off family, lovers and any others disposed to help.

She is appealing when respectfully coaxing aged Mr. Gabriel (Pedro Salinas) to sing for the first time since a grandchild’s death, noting down the traditional music for preservation like the Lomax brothers. But two marriages are barely a blip, and baby daughter Rosita Clara’s death does not bring her home from performing in “workers’ paradise” Poland for another two years. In Chile and Paris, she passionately clings to Swiss lover Gilbert Favre (Thomas Durand), who is her accompanist and frames her large output of large paintings, but she perversely drives him away several times over the years while simultaneously imploring that he remain. She is pleasantly charming with the town mayor (Marcial Tagle) who supplies access, land and encouragement for her La Reina music-center dream but later turns willfully impossible with him.

With young son Ángel (Patricio Ossa) and with Gilbert she twice alarmingly feigns death or fainting, and whether or not the wild contradictions in Parra’s character were signs of a personality in need of help, is debatable and, nearly a half-century afterwards, so much spilt milk. The too frequent sound of creaking wood and a puzzling sparrow hawk’s pouncing on barnyard fowl are false suggestive notes, and many characters are not well differentiated. The great draw is theater, television and film actress Gavilán in performance as the conflicted, lonely multi-talent.

(Released by Kino Lorber; not rated by MPAA.)

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