“A Fundamentally Ruizian Enterprise”

Raúl Ruiz’s Socialist Realism

In 1972, Chilean director Raúl Ruiz began work on Socialist Realism, a feature that would take a sardonic look at Popular Unity, the alliance of leftist and left-leaning parties led by socialist president Salvador Allende. On September 11 of the following year (not quite three years into the Allende administration), the military staged a coup d’état, ending a four-decade-long succession of democratically elected governments in Chile and establishing a junta headed by General Augusto Pinochet.

The coup left Ruiz little choice but to abandon Socialist Realism and flee Chile for France with his wife and close collaborator, filmmaker Valeria Sarmiento. Much of the unedited material eventually wound up being stored at Duke University in North Carolina. Now, Sarmiento, working with the Chilean production company Poetastros, has launched an international campaign to complete what Gonzalo Valdivia, writing for the Chilean daily La Tercera, calls one of Ruiz’s most ambitious and political works.

When Ruiz died in 2011, he had made well over a hundred films and was preparing to shoot Lines of Wellington, an epic war movie with a cast led by John Malkovich and including Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, and Michel Piccoli. Sarmiento took the reins, and Lines of Wellington premiered in competition in Venice before screening at the Toronto and New York film festivals. She then turned to three projects that Ruiz had begun in Chile but had never been able to complete. In 1990, when the Pinochet regime finally fell, Ruiz returned to conduct an acting workshop that led to the creation of A Wandering Soap Opera, a formally rambunctious tribute to the telenovela. Sarmiento shaped the material into an eighty-minute feature that she presented in 2017 in Locarno, where Ruiz’s debut feature, Three Sad Tigers, had won the Golden Leopard back in 1969.

Two years before that auspicious debut, Ruiz, then just twenty-seven, wrote and directed The Tango of the Widower but couldn’t raise the funds for the sound design. Half a century later, Sarmiento oversaw the restoration of the black-and-white footage and created a new audio track. In February 2020, The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror, which centers on a professor haunted by visions of his late wife, opened the Berlinale’s Forum program and is now slated to screen in New York in July and August as part of Film at Lincoln Center’s Big Screen Summer program. “Perhaps the best way to think of The Tango of the Widower is as a reincarnation,” suggests Ela Bittencourt in Sight & Sound. “Though nominally ‘co-directed,’ its process is more like a creative interference—in the best sense of the word—with an archeological find.”

In Socialist Realism, a factory worker is accused of stealing tools, while off in a smoke-filled room, intellectuals debate the future of Popular Unity. “At a certain moment,” Ruiz once wrote, “these characters intersect in an apparent friendship that ends in action-packed scenes with crossing bullets and songs shouted at the top of their lungs, thus producing a satirical reading of the time.” A fifty-minute rough cut of Socialist Realism, a mere sketch, made the rounds some years ago, but Gonzalo Valdivia reports that Ruiz envisioned a final version that would run somewhere between 150 and 225 minutes.

Sarmiento and Poetastros, reteaming with Tango editor Galut Alarcón and composer Jorge Arriagada, are looking to raise around $150,000 to complete Socialist Realism fifty years after Ruiz shot it. They have applied for four separate grants from Chile’s Ministry of Culture, Arts, and Heritage, and have been rejected each time. They’re now turning to the international community of cinephiles for support. “Ruiz’s oeuvre is one of the most sprawling, singular, and influential bodies of work in all of world cinema,” writes Dennis Lim at the campaign site, “and the possibility of that body expanding to include the films that the hyper-prolific Ruiz himself was unable to complete during his lifetime is not just immensely exciting, it is a fundamentally Ruizian enterprise.”

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