The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror review: Rául Ruiz torments a professor from beyond the grave

Finally rediscovered and reconstructed by his widow and now co-author Valeria Sarmiento, what would have been the unstoppable Chilean master’s first feature instead becomes his second posthumous work: a headlong Dadaist puzzle film about the haunting of a guilty widower.

Ela Bittencourt

The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror (2020)

The influential, prolific Chilean auteur Raúl Ruiz left us over one hundred films before his death in 2011 at the age of 70. He also left a handful of unfinished works. One – The Wandering Soap Opera, a tribute to popular Chilean telenovelas filmed with experimental exuberance after the fall of Pinochet, was finally traced and salvaged by the film editor Galut Alacrón and Ruiz’s widow, the filmmaker Valeria Sarmiento, who added new footage for the edit.

A similar process now takes place with another of Ruiz’s orphan films. While working on the materials for The Wandering Soap Opera, Sarmiento and her team also discovered the 35mm edited negative of what would have been his debut feature, The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror, shot in 1967. The film had lain incomplete because Ruiz never found the funds to complete its audio track before he went into exile after the Pinochet coup in 1973. Sixty years later, Sarmiento hired deaf lip- (and body-language) readers to recover the narrative, and she and scriptwriter Omar Saavedra Santis then recreated the story.

In the film, a widowed and ailing literature professor (Rubén Sotoconil) is tormented by visions of his late wife, who committed suicide. While the professor’s social life seems normal, and he continues to meet friends, his private one – in which his wife appears to him in daylight, whispering solicitous yet oppressive nothings in his ear – is tormented and increasingly disjointed. Strange wigs parade through his bedroom – a surrealist shorthand for desire, and for women’s bodies and their sex. While the film plays out partly like realistic social drama, these intimate sequences clearly borrow from horror and fantasy, in which the sense of reality quickly slips away.

The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror (2020)

Perhaps the best way to think of The Tango of the Widower is as a reincarnation. Though nominally ‘co-directed’, its process is more like a creative interference – in the best sense of the word – with an archeological find. On one hand, we can clearly see Ruiz’s original design in the plot and characters. On the other, Sarmiento lends the film a strong conceptual approach. In the film’s festival press notes, Sarmiento says that she felt that after Ruiz’s death she continued her dialogue with him in her dreams: “Completing [Raúl’s] first feature film is a way of materialising this dialogue that comes directly from the world of dreams, where we make films as if following improvised cooking recipes.”

Cooking is a lovely metaphor for the creative process, and Sarmiento’s flavouring is everywhere. Firstly, there’s her choice to score the film with the help of her and Ruiz’s longtime collaborator Jorge Arriagada. His evocative music makes eerie even the most mundane moments, such as the professor’s strolls in the streets.

Ruiz conceived of certain sequences repeating in blocks, to give the film a broken, cyclical structure. In Sarmiento’s treatment, the dialogues in some of these blocks play backwards, so that the film constantly slips out of lucidity into menacing gibberish, enhancing the hallucinatory effect. Ruiz’s implicit method of repetition, brilliantly reinforced by Sarmiento and the editor and sound designer Alarcón, both indicates the professor’s psychological fixation and offers the opportunity to see each scene anew, its subtext subtly altering as sound and context change.

Ruiz also experimented with creating a claustrophobic, tactile experience, keeping the camera close and unpredictable, undermining our ability to see space as a whole, or to connect actions in any linear fashion. This fragmentation now also poignantly reflects the source material – a jumble of unconnected, repetitive found fragments which had to be joined intuitively. The film’s connective tissue is less its plot or character denouement than a relentless sense of rhythm, reflective of a mind hurtling towards its own demise. In this streamlined story of a wife’s suicide and spousal guilt, the torment is acutely physical, always embodied in the lens.


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