Many people place Cuban musician Silvio Rodriguez as the figurehead of 20th century Latin American revolutionary folk music, but they would be mistaken. The distinction truly goes to Violeta Parra of Chile, who is remembered and revered as the godmother of La Nueva Canci??n Chilena.
She is perhaps best known for 'Gracias a la Vida" which continues to stand as one of the most covered songs in Latin American music history. Parra's own life is explored on the silver screen in Violeta se fue a los cielos, a 2011 biopic by Andr?®s Wood.
The film has finally come to Southern California after premiering in Chile nearly two years ago. It stars Francisca Gavil?ín in the lead role of the iconic folksinger in its innovative interpretation of her life based upon a book by the same name written by the musician's son ?üngel Parra.
Having had the recent opportunity to review the cinematic biography, it highlights Parra's strong passions, struggles, and the suicide that claimed her life. Woods, who also directed the masterful Chilean film Machuca, interweaves a recreated interview the folk singer did that displays her cleverness with the media while providing a loose narrative. Parra's rural upbringing and alcoholic father mark the beginning of her tale. A guitar was never far from her hand as a child.
Later, prior to the penning the songs that would make Parra upheld as a legend withstanding time, the audience sees her performing in the circus with her sister and other family members. One carefully improvised Holy Week staging ends afterward with Parra banging the bombo singing to workers standing at full attention. The song was "Arriba Quemando el Sol" about the hardships of Chilean miners.
After the experience left her wanting to leave the circus behind, she tells her sister that those are the kind of songs she really wants to sing. Parra's sibling remarked that songs like don't make anyone want to party. "Life's not a party," Gavil?ín responds. The political folk singer is born.
Parra's efforts to document the songs of Chile's rural countryside factor into her transformed artistic endeavors. The lyrics of funeral wakes are collected, but as the singer is recording in Europe, her own infant daughter dies back in Chile. There is much pain in the rasp of Parra's voice and Woods' film does well to make it real.
A love affair with a younger Swiss anthropologist Gilbert Favre who takes an interest in Chilean culture and the progenitor of its 'Nueva Canci??n' movement brings Parra more emotional turbulence even when, as an artist, she exhibits at the Louvre in Paris, France.
Back in Chile, she sets up a pe??a at a tent constructed on the outskirts. For a period of time, it becomes a de facto university of Chilean folk traditions, that is, until the only audience before Parra is one of the people from her past and present flashing before her eyes until it is revealed that the tent had, in fact, become withered and empty.
Violeta se fue a los cielos is a triumphant tribute to one of Chile's most complete artists. It's narrative is not solely navigated through the aforementioned archived interview, but masterfully and viscerally through her songs themselves.
Parra remains definitive in music, and now in film.
Violeta se fue a los cielos concludes its run at Laemmle's Royal Theatre, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd. West LA, 90025; (310) 478-3836 and Laemmle's Playhouse 7, 673 East Colorado Blvd. Pasadena, 91101; (310) 478-3836.
Gabriel San Roman:
Gabriel San Roman is a contributing writer to OC Weekly and is the author of the forthcoming "Venceremos: Victor Jara and the New Chilean Song Movement" as part of PM Press' Pamphlet Series. Follow him on Twitter @dpalabraz. Author's website