The best tragic pop-star biopics flesh out unknown or unhyped artist trajectories (who will play Sugar Man?!?), and this fleshy, robust Chilean saga more than fits the bill, limning the fiery life of ’60s folk icon Violeta Parra from peasant infant to gunshot suicide at the age of 49. A favorite songwriter of everyone from Joan Baez to Shakira, Parra was a pioneering folklorist and initiated the international nueva canción movement almost single-handedly, packing 11 studio albums with reinvented native ballads and playing around the world (including Communist Poland). In Andrés Wood’s film, Parra is perpetually penniless and stalked by tragedy, and the movie time-shifts fluidly through her story; even her magnificently baleful songs do not bode well.
Some biopic clichés could’ve been swapped out for more music-making—Parra’s prodigious recording career is elided altogether—but the movie is blessed with star Francisca Gavilán, whose grave, driven Violeta is convincingly four-dimensional, thrumming with maternal-feminist power yet plagued by self-loathing and depression. (She also sings Parra’s songs, with scorching full-throatedness.) A rare Chilean film that doesn’t mention either the Allende or Pinochet regimes, Violeta Went to Heaven is a love letter to a lost 20th-century goddess. It’s hard to resist her.
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