You have to give the Chilean auteur Raul Ruiz credit for being so admirably prolific in death. Night Across the Street released shortly after his demise, whereas Ruiz’s wife and frequent collaborator Valeria Sarmiento used his pre-production work to helm The Lines of Wellington, taking sole directorial credit. His “latest” film is more of a rediscovery. Unlike suspiciously posthumous novels released years after the supposed author’s death, Ruiz helmed these satirical interconnected vignettes at the peak of his powers in 1990, so Sarmiento only had to edit them together per his intentions. The hardest part was finding the lost film of the experimental workshop sessions. Your feelings on experimental workshops will be a strong indicator of how much or how little you will enjoy Ruiz’s The Wandering Soap Opera when it opens today in New York.
Soap Opera was filmed in 1990, when Ruiz returned to Chile during the early days of the democratic reforms. Not surprisingly, there are political references littered throughout the film, but many will be stubbornly murky for outsiders to interpret. On the other hand, most of the comedy sending up the conventions and clichés of telenovelas is easy to get. Essentially, the figures we see on screen are mostly characters on telenovelas, but some are telenovela characters who are watching other telenovelas characters. In one case, the telenovela is even interrupted by an actress asking the characters how she could get cast to be on their show.
This all sort of gives the film a Russian doll structure, but it lacks the Borgesian bravura of Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room or even Ruiz’s masterful Mysteries of Lisbon. It also logically follows that some mini-arcs will be stronger than others. By far the funniest sequence chronicles an endless cycle of rival leftist rebels killing each other and issuing stilted statements, before getting gunned down in turn. However, there are several sequences involving overwrought middle-aged characters (often former political exiles) sitting around parlors exchanging purple dialogue that start to blend together.
Not surprisingly, there is an off-the-cuff raggedness to Wandering that is part of its charm. It was a time of change. Ruiz and his cast and crew were obviously delighted to have the opportunity to work together and address issues of exile, resistance, and religion openly. It is just somewhat surprising they did not have more to say.
Even though it only runs a modest 78 minutes, a little of Wandering goes a long way. After 40 minutes, most viewers will get everything there is to get. There are amusing moments sprinkled throughout, but it is definitely a decidedly uneven viewing experience. Those with mainstream tastes and preferences should be strongly cautioned: The Wandering Soap Opera is only for patrons of the avant-garde who will forgive its excesses for the sake of its politics. Recommended for the one-percent of the population that loves to use the term “one-percent” derisively, The Wandering Soap Opera opens today (5/17) in New York, at Anthology Film Archives.