The Wandering Soap Opera ★★★★★

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"The ideas I will develop (at times in a somewhat erratic fashion) will turn upon three intuitions or metaphors. Firstly, the images that together make up a film determine what type of narration will structure the film and not the contrary. Secondly, a film is not made up or composed of a number of shots, rather it is decomposed by the shots; when we see a film of 500 shots, we also see 500 films. Thirdly, a film is valid, aesthetically valid, insofar as the film views the spectator as much as the spectator views the film." - Raul Ruiz, Poetics of Cinema 2


"Uncanny" is a word one could accurately use to describe much of the work of the iconoclastic Chilean director Raul Ruiz, and perhaps never more appropriately than here, in what might be seen as an almost literally reanimated corpse of a film. It's oddly fitting, perhaps, that Ruiz of all people would be able to direct a masterpiece even from beyond the grave, given the flexible classifications of "living" and "dead" that his characters often find themselves in.

Just as frequently as characters in his films find themselves inexplicably dead one minute and alive the next, they are constantly moving between different levels of "fiction" and "reality", nevermore so than in this posthumously-released collection of scenes cobbled together by his widow Valeria Sarmiento from six days' worth of acting workshops Ruiz held in 1990, with additional material from Sarmiento shot in 2017.

The original footage marked the filmmaker's return to his native Chile, after twenty years of exile. Appropriately, the scenes find him in a somewhat more pointedly political mood than usual, albeit it filtered through his typically sly, absurdist non-sequiturs. He imagines his country as a place caught between the real and unreal, dying and not yet born, its citizens lost and wandering in a perpetual dream-state, caught within not just one virtual soap opera but, in his typically convoluted fashion, soap operas within soap operas.

The film's soap opera motif builds upon a conceit introduced in earlier Ruiz efforts, perhaps most prominently his sole American film The Golden Boat, incidentally released the same year that this material was first filmed, and in some ways perhaps the closest stylistic counterpoint within Ruiz's vast oeuvre. While neither rank as among the director's most visually extravagant efforts, they are if nothing else two of his funniest.

If The Golden Boat has been compared to the glimpses of Invitation to Love shown in the first season of Twin Peaks (and all too tellingly absent from The Return, I might add) than here the comparison is made even more explicit. Also worth noting is that early in his career, Ruiz actually learned his craft working in Chilean and Mexican television, an experience that he surely drew from when conjuring up his own exploded, kaleidoscopic take on the form here.

Obviously, much credit deserves to be given to Sarmiento, an accomplished filmmaker in her own right. Without knowing beforehand that she had shot new material to complete the film, I scarcely would have suspected, so expertly does she match the unmistakable sensibility of her late husband. Only occasionally, when the film will cut suddenly to footage with a noticeably rougher visual texture, did it occur to me that I'd been watching immediately prior was in fact Sarmiento's newly shot, (presumably) digital work.

On a side note, I've just started reading the second volume of Ruiz's Poetics of Cinema (quoted above), books which are every bit as characteristic of their author's unmistakable sensibility as his film work in their labyrinthian digressions and frequent allusions to a vast array of poets, philosophers, and other assorted literary and historical figures. Like his films, reading these short yet disproportionately dense tomes is by turns maddening and enthralling.

Even when ostensibly expressing his views on filmmaking, Ruiz can't resist a ten page meta-fictive tangent. One gets the impression that he was either the most well-read man alive or an irrepressible fabulist and bullshitter, and I suspect the truth is a bit of both. Either way, his love of storytelling is clearly matched only by his resistance to conventional, linear ways of doing so. One gets easily lost reading his work in a not necessarily un-pleasurable way, a sensation very familiar from watching his films.

In this regard, The Wandering Soap Opera is not unusual, although the film's general lack of coherence isn't nearly as exaggerated as it is in some of his work, particularly the dense, muddled films that immediately proceeded it like The Blind Owl, Insomniacs on the Bridge, or Life is a Dream. Indeed, the film is broken down into seven distinct vignettes of various lengths, held together by only the thinnest overarching soap opera motif (presumably Sarmiento's contribution).

At less than eighty minutes, this is hardly one of Ruiz's most intimidating or impenetrable efforts, and at such a length it might even be one of his most approachable. The seven-part structure somewhat resembles Love Torn in a Dream, without even going as far as that film does into overlapping, increasingly convoluted narrative strands. As I mentioned above, it also ranks as among the director's funniest films, I suspect even more so for Chileans who surely understand references that I myself do not.

In many ways, I think the film falls into a particular sweet spot in Ruiz's oeuvre, a proportionately overlooked period that falls between the aforementioned '80s work (even more challenging, yet rightly celebrated for their visual inventiveness), and the ever-so-slightly more mainstream later work from the mid-'90s onward, when Ruiz began working with bigger names and the production values increased proportionately, albeit at the expense at (some of) the pervasive strangeness.

These "inbetween" films from the early '90s, interestingly enough, have tended to be some of my favorite Ruiz efforts, slightly more accessible than what came before yet still far more eccentric than the likes of Time Regained or Mysteries of Lisbon. While technically a hybrid of old and new material, The Wandering Soap Opera fits pretty effortlessly alongside films like the aforementioned Golden Boat or the equally under-seen Dark at Noon.

With a filmography as vast as Ruiz's, there is a certain threat of interchangeability to some of these titles, and a casual fan might want to try The Golden Boat or Love Torn in a Dream before delving headfirst into this posthumous effort (and even then, in general I find it best to pace oneself with Ruiz, lest a certain exhaustion begins to set in) , but for Ruiz aficionados, there's all the beguiling strangeness we've come to expect and cherish to be found here, perhaps all the more delightful for its uncanny fruition.