The True Colors of Latin American Tricksters

On Raúl Ruiz & Valeria Sarmiento’s The Tango of the Widower and its Distorting Mirror and Matías Piñeiro’s Isabella

by Rodrigo Garay

Old meets new in the 2020 Berlinale line-up. Forum, the most radical section of the festival, turns 50 this year and somehow embodies the duality of avant-garde and long-standing tradition in the latest Raúl Ruiz/Valeria Sarmiento post-mortem collaboration: a film that represents both the past and the present. Sarmiento took Ruiz’s unfinished rolls from the 70s and turned them into a whole new monster. On the other hand, Carlo Chatrian’s administration launched Encounters: a fresh selection of plural aesthetic perspectives that includes Matías Piñeiro’s latest ‘shakespeareada’—a modern take on a lesser known comedy of the Bard.

Both features deal with ambivalent characters that could be partially deciphered with the help of two particular pieces of literature. A Pablo Neruda poem and a William Shakespeare play each hold the key to unlocking these deceivingly alluring tricksters’ true colors.

Raúl Ruiz shot THE TANGO OF THE WIDOWER AND ITS DISTORTING MIRROR (EL TANGO DEL VIUDO Y SU ESPEJO DEFORMANTE, Chile) right before Augusto Pinochet’s coup d’état in 1973 threw him into exile and, hence, was never able to finish it. If he had, it would’ve been his first feature film. Now, almost fifty years later, his former wife and editor Valeria Sarmiento has reassembled the pieces of celluloid that he left behind into a wicked and beautifully psychotic palindrome of a crime flick.

First we see, lying on the bathroom floor, a woman whose death makes protagonist Clemente Iriarte’s status as a widower effective immediately. Poor, poor man. He walks alone in the black-and-white streets of Santiago de Chile, he meets with friends looking sorry, like a ghost, and for a brief second he inhabits the world of an early Éric Rohmer moral tale—perhaps a little bit drunker, and a little bit crazier. Clemente can barely sleep at night; tokens of his wife haunt him in dreams, and this gradually becomes a living nightmare.

There’s a sense of the old French poetic realism in the dark euphoria that unveils Clemente’s fall into madness. Think of THE TANGO OF THE WIDOWER’s camera as a fly trapped in a poorly ventilated room. A lively creature inside a tiny prison cell, it buzzes around with no sense of direction other than the one established naturally by its own mortality. It’s not performance, storytelling, nor visual effect that dictate where the shot is directed or how it is framed, it’s the fact that its time is finite. Instinct as a way to film one man’s destiny.

By the magic of Sarmiento’s editing, TANGO starts moving backwards halfway through its runtime. It literally rewinds. Conversations make no sense anymore, people walk facing the other way, doors open and close in the opposite direction. Events repeat themselves, but twisted. Only when we get to the beginning of the film (which is now the ending) and watch it in reverse, we realize what truly happened to the wife lying on the bathroom floor. Neruda’s namesake poem “El tango del viudo” foreshadows this in its first few lines:

Later you’ll find, buried by the coconut palm,
the knife I hid there for fear you’d kill me,
and now, suddenly, I’d like to smell its kitchen steel
accustomed to the weight of your hand and the shine of your foot:
under the dampness of the earth, among the deaf roots,
of the human languages only that of the poor could know your name,
and the heavy earth doesn’t understand your name
made out of impenetrable, divine substances.

So the man is a widower by his own making. Clemente, you bastard. This metaphorical knife was hidden all along in the normal sequence of events; once you read the scenes backwards, it reveals itself. “Aquí no ha pasado nada,” says the voiceover, suddenly comprehensible: nothing happened here. Keep moving.

A more intricate time puzzle unfolds in ISABELLA (Argentina/France), written and directed by Matías Piñeiro. Our main character, Mariel, is trying really hard to get a part in a production of William Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”. To prepare for the audition process, she’s helped by Luciana, an intriguing young actress who seems confident and successful. Luciana practices lines with her, gives some tips and clever exercises to improve her delivery. Her old friend is so knowledgeable of this particular role because it’s actually hers: since she gets an unmissable job opportunity in another country, Luciana is unable to do the Shakespeare gig and is training a proper replacement.

We’re left to patch this sequence of events on our own, with visual cues that range from the humane (pay close attention to Mariel’s pregnancy and early motherhood) to the purely abstract (a light installation takes up the screen and flashes pink and purple hues every now and then—eventually becoming part of the story), immersed in a labyrinth of non-linearity and time fractures.

The only constant in this game of past and future is a cloud of disappointment permeating the entire movie. Luck doesn’t seem to strike for Mariel. She fails to get the part and doesn’t really understand what’s expected of her when that happens. This is verbally emphasized by one of Piñeiro’s favorite rhetorical devices (one he shares with his friend and fellow filmmaker Nicolás Pereda): repetition. Through Isabella’s lines, a dialogue that soon becomes a frantic monologue, Mariel begs chance for mercy.


Too late? why, no; I, that do speak a word.
May call it back again. Well, believe this,
No ceremony that to great ones 'longs,
Not the king's crown, nor the deputed sword,
The marshal's truncheon, nor the judge's robe,
Become them with one half so good a grace
As mercy does.
If he had been as you and you as he,
You would have slipt like him; but he, like you,
Would not have been so stern.

The third line from the bottom perfectly captures the dynamic between the two leads. If she had been as you and you as she: Mariel by Luciana, Luciana by Mariel. From the latter’s point of view, their relationship is one of cosmic unfairness. Why is the other so talented and natural? How is she doing it? In an apparently random order of alternating plot points and non-sequitur encounters, there is a series of almost identical panning shots spread throughout the movie that follow Luciana on her way to the same audition she’s insisting Mariel go to, the camera hiding behind a corner. ISABELLA’s camera is a sick voyeur trying to unravel something secret from a distance.

We soon learn that Luciana stole back the part. Was this easy-going and charming ally prepping her new colleague just to take her desire away in a last-minute act of treachery? So little is known about her that we’re left wondering. In Shakespeare’s dialogue, Isabella pleads to an abusive power figure that wants to take advantage of her sexual innocence. A vampyric despot craving flesh. Mariel inhabits her role intertextually when she says the proper words, making Luciana, in a way, a veiled and sophisticated tyrant.

Like Clemente’s criminal intentions in the Neruda poem, her whole conundrum is encapsulated in Isabella’s plea. Poetry and violence keep finding their way in Latin American cinematic artistry, it seems. Images and words, literature and cinema, clashing together, vibing in unison. Perhaps it’s just me, but Borges, Carpentier, Arenas or Pessoa keep coming back to meet an audience every time Piñeiro, Llinás, Ruiz or Guzmán make their characters speak for too long.