It speaks to how amazingly prolific Raúl Ruiz was that he’s still managing to entertain us from beyond the grave. This week Facets is screening the Chicago premiere of The Wandering Soap Opera (aka La Telenovela Errante), a collection of scenes the Chilean-born filmmaker shot in 1990 and that his widow, Valeria Sarmiento, completed in 2017. As I wrote in this week’s issue of the Reader, The Wandering Soap Opera touches on all the filmmaker’s favorite themes—paranoia, narrative intricacy, fleeting but meaningful friendships—while advancing the baroque (yet proudly low-budget) aesthetic for which he was beloved by cinephiles worldwide.
Ruiz had plenty of opportunities to endear himself to audiences, having made over 100 films in Chile, France, and the U.S. More impressive than the breadth of his output, however, is the richness conveyed within individual films. A storyteller in love with storytelling, Ruiz’s work abounds with tales and tales within tales—the characteristic Love Torn in a Dream (2000) is built around a narrative game in which the writer-director spins out as many permutations as he can imagine from nine dramatic conceits. Ruiz heightened the complexity of his storytelling with a dense visual language indebted to Orson Welles (indeed he may be the only Welles acolyte to rival the American master in terms of shot-for-shot invention), employing playful camera movements, extreme low angles, and deep-focus shots. For this reason, his work always benefits from big-screen presentation. Let’s hope the Facets run of Wandering Soap Opera inspires a full-blown Ruiz retrospective some time soon—he made enough films to fill almost a dozen of them. Here are five capsules from the Reader archives of some of his best.
Three Crowns of the Sailor Raúl Ruiz’s compendium of old sea stories, drawn from Dinesen, Andersen, Stevenson, and Conrad, and knitted together into a tale of wonderful complexity. Ruiz plays a game with the audience, challenging us to find the patterns within the film’s apparently arbitrary events, and then asking us to find the patterns that unite the patterns. Paradoxes build on paradoxes and logic on illogic, and yet the game has a serious end, building toward a world stripped of substance, in which everything signifies but nothing means. The visual style, based on Welles but with its own surprising directions, is just as imaginative. With Jean-Bernard Guillard, Philippe Deplanche, and Lisa Lyon (1982). —Dave Kehr
City of Pirates Another seductive, confounding fantasy film by Raúl Ruiz (Three Crowns of the Sailor), this one is a potent blend of themes and images drawn from the avant-garde of the 1920s, Victorian children’s stories, and Hammer horror films. It’s useless to describe the plot, which flows with perfect dream logic from one mysterious episode to the next, but the overall atmosphere is one of violent whimsy, a combination of murderous intent and innocent appearance. The chief characters are a sleepwalking virgin (Anne Alvaro), a ten-year-old boy (Melvil Poupaud) who has raped and killed his entire family, and the lone inhabitant of an island castle (Hugues Quester) who shares his body with an imaginary sister. In a period dominated by fantastic filmmaking, Ruiz is perhaps the only director to extend the play of fantasy to the level of form: his methods are as wildly imaginative as his subjects, and his films are games we play by trying to discover the rules. (1983)—Dave Kehr
Life Is a Dream Also known as Memory of Appearances, this ambitious feature by the extraordinary and prolific Raúl Ruiz relocates portions of both versions of Calderón’s Life Is a Dream—the sacred and profane versions, written many decades apart—in a provincial movie theater, where a Chilean revolutionary tries to recall portions of a secret code drawn from the text, gets interrogated by the police behind the movie screen, and imagines himself as a participant in some of the genre films he’s watching. If this sounds confusing, it’s nothing compared to the multileveled games with the imagination that Ruiz plays throughout this intriguing labyrinth, where vestiges of science fiction, musical comedy, western shoot-outs, and costume dramas rub shoulders with themes and lines from Calderón. The important thing to keep in mind is that, however murky the proceedings may get, Ruiz is basically out to have fun, and as one of the supreme visual stylists in the contemporary cinema, he can guarantee more visual surprises and bold poetic conceits than we are likely to find crowded together elsewhere. Cheerfully indifferent to the modernist notion of a masterpiece, he conflates the profound with the tacky in a liberating manner that turns both into a witty carnival of attractions (1986). —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Three Lives and Only One Death Perhaps the most accessible movie of the Chilean-born Raúl Ruiz (who has some 90 titles to his credit)—a sunny showcase for the charismatic talents of the late Marcello Mastroianni, who plays four separate roles, as well as a testament to Ruiz’s imaginative postsurrealist talents as a yarn spinner and a weaver of magical images and ideas. Mixing ideas borrowed liberally and freely from stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Isak Dinesen with whimsical notions that could belong to no one but Ruiz (such as the tale of a millionaire who willingly and successfully turns himself into a beggar), this 1996 French comedy with a Paris setting often resembles a kind of euphoric free fall through the works and fancies of a writer like Jorge Luis Borges. Among the spirited cast members are Mastroianni’s daughter Chiara, Melvil Poupaud (City of Pirates), Anna Galiena, Marisa Paredes, and Arielle Dombasle. Pascal Bonitzer is the cowriter. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Mysteries of Lisbon Raúl Ruiz’s four-and-a-half-hour costume drama (2010) is one of the great achievements of his idiosyncratic career, a cavalcade of plot twists, love triangles, disguises, visual tricks, and flashbacks-within-flashbacks that summarizes his signature themes: fiction, imagination, and the pliability of meaning. Adapted from a novel by Camilo Castelo Branco and set mainly in 19th-century Portugal, the film centers on a teenager whose search for his origins uncovers countless closely guarded secrets. The sprawling plot is almost impossible to synopsize, but Ruiz’s late-period style—with its inventive use of long takes and dolly shots—makes it all seem effortless and inevitable. Despite the running time (an even longer version was broadcast on Portuguese TV), the movie is never sluggish; on the contrary, it’s smart, energetic filmmaking that also makes for engrossing entertainment. —Ignatiy Vishnevetsky v