“I’m not a modern woman,” insists Chilean singer Violeta Parra (Francisca Gavilán) on a TV interview threaded throughout Andrés Wood’s elliptical biography. “I’m a primitive.” As a central figure in the Chilean folk revival of the 1960s, Parra was called worse than primitive, since popularizing the indigenous music passed down from her Indian father represented a threat to the country’s light-skinned leadership. Parra sought recognition, successfully campaigning to have her woven tapestries hung in the Louvre’s decorative-arts museum, but she tried to bring people to her rather than going to them. Wood, who chronicled the approach of Pinochet’s dictatorship in Machuca, looks at Parra’s life through a prism. Periods fragment and overlap, suggesting that just as folklore carries the past into the present, the present owes an always-unpaid debt to the past.
Old age seems present in Parra, even when she’s a little girl. As her father entertains a roomful of drums by strumming a battered guitar, she throws herself onto the fretboard, clutching it as if weathering a storm. Even at the height of her fame, she looks worn, as if she’s just come in from a hard day’s work in the beating sun. She’s never allowed to forget her rural origins—after she plays a few songs for a gathering of wealthy dinner guests, the host invites her to eat in the kitchen—and she never tries. She alters those who come into contact with her, like Gilbert Favre (Thomas Durand), a Swiss flautist who seeks her out and is soon accompanying her in a woven poncho, but no one seems to change her. She’s alone, even when she’s with others.
Wood’s is the rare biography uninterested in boldfacing its subject’s social significance: No one tells Parra how she’s started a movement, or that nueva canción has become a powerful vehicle for change throughout Latin America. Even during her TV interview, she spends much of the time rebutting the right-wing host’s incessant querying about her Communist ties, and charming the unseen crowd. Gavilán’s performance bears out Parra’s advice to “hate mathematics and embrace chaos,” and falls between private and public, assurance and self-doubt. It’s no surprise that Violeta Went to Heaven was Chile’s Oscar submission, but unlike most awards-grubbing biopics, this one feels no need to telegraph its own difficulty.