Now, many years since the barrier between high and low art was obliterated, it doesn’t seem so odd that Raúl Ruiz, progenitor of the hyperbaroque in film, would dabble in telenovelas shortly after returning to his homeland of Chile, or that such a light-hearted experiment would effectively mark the end of his political exile. And this exact moment—when anything can happen, will happen, and you will be notified of it almost instantaneously—turns out to represent the optimal viewing conditions for The Wandering Soap Opera, a not-quite political film that folds into itself in alternately humorous and suggestively terrifying ways. Set in a version of the surreal, hyper-capitalist reality of post-Pinochet Chile, the film follows characters from four different novelas as they interact with each other directly and watch each other’s shows. Drifting between perspectives and plotlines, Ruiz and Valeria Sarmiento’s film—which was posthumously completed in 2017 (six years after Ruiz’s death in 2011) and will receive a one-week theatrical run at Anthology Film Archives beginning May 17—feels as boundless and expansive as the medium of television itself, and remains far more visually compelling than anything you’d catch on actual TV.
The humor and the commingling of the living and the dead that recur throughout Ruiz’s work are well-suited to the world of novelas, despite what assumptions you may have about the genre. In the United States, they are frequently reduced to “those hilarious Spanish soap operas,” or written off as too culturally specific and self-referential to be comprehensible to “outsiders.” Yet novelas have always been exportable, prone to their own metaphorical wanderings: many series have been dubbed into other languages, rebroadcast, and become re-beloved around the world over the past half-century. Once that language barrier is removed, it becomes apparent that the histrionics and oversimplifications common to novelas are entirely self-aware and crucial to their appeal—which are not unlike the absurd pleas and arguments that Ruiz’s characters frequently find themselves in (that double as allegories for exile).
The genre’s eclecticism (each series is a self-contained story that, unless it becomes a transnational phenomenon, lasts a year at most) is evident in The Wandering Soap Opera’s story as well as its form: a titlecard introduces each new “day” of shooting, which is usually limited to one location or group of characters. While this appears to reflect how the film’s making—reinforced by footage of Ruiz on-set at its start and conclusion—this structure was actually imposed on Ruiz’s material by Sarmiento in order to make it more “playful.” (Ruiz’s declaration, “Okay, the film’s finished!” takes place on the set of the “third day,” hinting at this deceit; anyone familiar with actual film production will also recognize that it’s delightful b.s..) The fictitious seven-day structure has religious implications, suggested by the seventh day’s title card (“If you behave badly in this life, you become a Chilean in the next one. R.R.”), and by virtue of the fact that the project represents a kind of resurrection of Ruiz: the footage had been thought lost for many years, and it was only by chance that Sarmiento was reunited with it (at two different archives). Seven recalls both the Old Testament’s seven days of creation, but also the myth of Osiris’s body being torn to seven pieces and distributed in northern and southern Egypt, which Ruiz described as the main metaphor for his filmmaking.
The seventh day is literally and figuratively dark, with men moving in and out of large swaths of shadow inside a mysterious building, through the consequences of violence (a garrote wire that’s also a leash, a man’s bloodied head, disembodied screams), whispering their fears to cute baby animals; and the final shot, of a man holding a newspaper with a screaming headline about some atrocity committed by the police, cuts before you can finish reading what it says. This nightmarish conclusion—a story told by an old school chum to another old school chum who’s on detour from paying his respects to a third, dead classmate—is a significant departure from the previous days, which involves a Catholic socialist seducing his brother’s wife, a businessman with pubic hair stigmata, and a widow accusing her dead husband of posthumous infidelity. (Each of these vignettes are incredibly funny, and peppered with discussions of wanting to not alienate potential leftist allies, not so out of place in 2019 Brooklyn.)
The disjunction between the first six days and the final day recalls the relationship between Invitation to Love (the fictitious soap opera within Twin Peaks) and the outsized actions of Twin Peaks’s residents. Both levels of text were histrionic in their own way, but because our relationship to the “real” one was more sustained and also understood as real, the violence and emotional hurt that the characters of Twin Peaks suffered cut deeper (even though our relationship to them was essentially theirs to Invitation to Love). Yet even in these more lighthearted vignettes, The Wandering Soap Opera is never allowed to be as “real” as Lynch and Frost’s creation. Television sets, which the characters watch or exist in a type of non-space (neither clearly within nor outside of the diegesis), show footage of other novelas, of novelas we’ve already seen, and of characters watching novelas that are playing elsewhere in the frame. As the actress who played the widow sits on her couch in her robe and gets ruthlessly hit on by another character, a woman’s face is superimposed on the action. She begins laughing at the falseness of the scene, which was breaking the fourth wall but didn’t seem artificial: “He’s obviously not drinking whiskey. Maybe that tie isn’t a tie, and that vase isn’t a vase, and those plants aren’t plants, and the sofa isn’t a sofa.” Disrupting the backstage farce we were just watching, tearing us out of a comfortable sense of fiction, it’s an experience antithetical to the encompassing melodrama that novelas (or the vast majority of films) offer. Just as different characters try and fail to assume different roles, rebuffed by their scene partners, so too must the viewer perpetually navigate the experience. Like Ruiz’s grandest works, The Wandering Soap Opera feels as though it has firm ground to stand on, yet remains assured in its slipperiness.