‘The Wandering Soap Opera’ Review: An Excursion Into Raúl Ruiz’s Fertile Mind

The prolific filmmaker Raúl Ruiz left his native Chile after the 1973 military coup and found refuge in France, where he lived until his death, at 70, in 2011. In 1990, at the end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, Ruiz returned to his homeland to work on a project called (in English translation) “The Wandering Soap Opera.” It was left unfinished at the time, but a version has now, belatedly, been completed by Valeria Sarmiento, Ruiz’s fellow cineaste, frequent collaborator and also his wife.

“The Wandering Soap Opera” begins and ends with black-and-white still photographs of Ruiz on the set, poignant reminders of his indefatigable creativity and tenacious productivity. The film, a mock anthology of fragmentary episodes from preposterous telenovelas, is a minor addition to the Ruiz corpus, which runs to more than 100 titles, among them a handful of masterpieces. It was clearly made with slender financial means and abundant enthusiasm, and it functions simultaneously as a critique of the self-serious idiocy of authority and a celebration of the anarchic power of imagination.

As a young man, Ruiz wrote scripts for Mexican and Chilean telenovelas, and the open-ended, all-inclusive, anti-realistic spirit of the form stayed with him through his career. In “The Wandering Soap Opera,” reality itself is reimagined as an interlocking set of interminable melodramas, crime stories and romances. The seven chapters — one for each day of the week, as they might unfold on television — are presented in sequence, but they also nest inside one another like matryoshka dolls. If the dolls had been designed by Max Ernst or Salvador Dalí.

There is, accordingly, no real summary to be offered. The first “day,” “People Are Watching Us,” starts out as a tale of bourgeois adultery with vague political implications and quickly sets the tone for what will follow. The line readings are unfailingly earnest, and the lines themselves are non sequiturs, riddles and cryptic jokes.

Scenarios of romantic deception and skulduggery are threaded with political implications. When a man tells his lover that he prefers her left leg to her right, she wonders if that means he’s a leftist. In Pinochet’s Chile, the question wasn’t a laughing matter, but in Ruiz’s world, matters of life and death are never without a dimension of absurdity.

“The Wandering Soap Opera,” shot in fuzzy-gumdrop colors on Super 16-millimeter film, offers a portal into that world, a series of sketches by a master whose work always rewards discovery.

The Wandering Soap Opera

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The Wandering Soap Opera
Not rated. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.

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