On Sundays, I read the scripture of Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño. He speaks to me through tales of Latin American history, world traveling and visceral realism. Bolaño helps me better understand the work of the late Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz, an experimental director who made over 100 films between 1963 and 2012. The Wandering Soap Opera — a 2017 release co-directed by Ruiz’s widow, Valeria Sarmiento — thematically aligns with the worldview of Bolaño’s 2666 character Boris Ansky, a Russian Jew who imagines parallel universes during Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Shortly before disappearing forever, he leaves a message in his notebook: “Only in chaos are we conceivable.”
Ruiz conceptualized The Wandering Soap Opera upon returning to Chile after a 15-year exile in Paris. He and the aforementioned Sarmiento left their native country in 1973 when General Augusto Pinochet led a military coup against President Salvador Allende; an event that Bolaño frequently references in his work. The Wandering Soap Opera imagines Chilean society as a telenovela, in which characters cross over into different stories and discuss the inherent chaos of their environments. Some people speak flippantly while others dramatize nonsensical language. All, however, seem to understand the entertainment aspect of their reality. They reject certain ideas like Bolaño’s literary alter-ego, Arturo Belano, rejects anything that doesn’t appeal to him. They create obstacles to overcome as part of a daily routine. Only in chaos are the characters of The Wandering Soap Opera conceivable.
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Ruiz filmed The Wandering Soap Opera during a week in the 90s. Structurally and tonally, the seven vignettes resemble a modern absurdist series like I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson. The characters make bizarre statements, but the central themes stand out by the end. For example, “Day 1: The People Are Watching Us” includes an elderly man who answers a woman’s question with “Yes, I am a leftist. Now can I touch you?” A sense of male entitlement and partisan bravado immediately stands out in The Wandering Soap Opera, allowing the average viewer to ascertain the key narrative elements.
Like Bolaño, Ruiz finds humor in chaos. The Wandering Soap Opera’s male characters take themselves quite seriously while spouting cryptic lines (“When I heard the word ‘lemon,’ I thought it was my duty to come in”). Female figures muse about the mundaneness of recycled conflict (“All we do is watch soap operas and comment on them”). By the end of “Day 3,” a male politician — who speaks articulately about regional development — urges the people to trust him because… well, “just because.” Ruiz and co-writer Pía Rey continuously circle back to accessible themes like a polished stand-up comic returns to an opening one-liner. By “Day 6,” a closing statement such as “I’m for banning that soap opera” carries tremendous weight when considering the sociopolitical subtext and how certain characters learn to embrace their misery.
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If the comedic opening chapters of The Wandering Soap Opera remind of idealistic yet naive Bolaño characters, the concluding segments resemble tales from the author’s 1997 short story collection Last Evenings on Earth. Already living in a telenovela world, Ruiz’s characters retreat into their minds and can’t imagine a better tomorrow; they are clinically depressed figures trapped in a box. Many of Bolaño’s creations — certainly in 2666 and Last Evenings on Earth — similarly seem stuck in time, whether they are vagabonds, mystical figures or corpses buried in the Sonoran Desert.
Ruiz creates a sense of claustrophobia and detachment in The Wandering Soap Opera with his meta mise-en-scène. The director stages characters inside televisions. One set is framed alongside an empty cigarette pack, used notebooks and audio cassettes. Characters abandon one telenovela world for another. A left-behind bottle of alcohol is clearly half-empty (rather than half-full). Over and over, The Wandering Soap Opera reminds the audience that the telenovela inhabitants do have alternative options — they can leave for a world that’s less cruel, or at least one that’s simply different. Ruiz’s chapter-ending dialogue comedically highlights all the ridiculous in-world concepts that seem acceptable to the characters.
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The Wandering Soap Opera anticipates an afterlife, but who gets to go? Ruiz’s seventh and final segment, “If you behave badly in this life, you become a Chilean in the next one,” suggests that Bolaño was right to leave Chile and wander into the mystic, and that perhaps it’s better to dream and fail than to conform and question little. The future appears bleak for the telenovela characters of The Wandering Soap Opera, but at least they have accessible entertainment options to distract them from all the normalized chaos.
The Wandering Soap Opera is part of OVID.tv’s March 2022 lineup.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.