Ruiz and the Devils
day God didn’t know what else to do so He stood up on his hands and created
the Upside Down World.
– Angel Parra in La Recta Provincia.
Over recent days I’ve been in many conversations about Raúl Ruiz and his films. Curiously, we weren’t talking about cinema. In Chile, many people react furiously when Ruiz is mentioned in conversation. It has certainly happened to me many times. All of Ruiz’s spontaneous critics say his films are hard to understand, complex and therefore ‘fake’. ‘I knew him personally long ago’, one said to me. ‘I knew him since before you were even born … And I can tell you, he’s a fake’. And then he added: ‘Like all chilotes, that’s for sure’.
‘But Raúl Ruiz is not chilote’, I replied. ‘He was born in Puerto Montt’.
‘Yes, well, like all chilotes’, he insisted, and suddenly we were in a scene from a film by Raúl Ruiz.
Chiloé is a archipelago located in the south of Chile, just in the front of Puerto Montt city. Chiloé is nationally famous for its geographic beauties, ancient churches made of wood, and local dishes based on potatoes and seafood. But what Chiloé is mostly famous for is its inhabitants, the chilotes.
Chilotes are well known in Chile because of their storytelling skills. They tell stories about themselves that sound like lies, but are not. Not all of them, at any rate.
For example, they say all the potatoes in the world are from Chiloé. Before the Spanish conquered the island, they say, there were no potatoes anywhere else. Potatoes in Chiloé are so diverse you can count as many as three hundred species all over the island.
They also say that when a chilote has to move to live in a different part of the island he takes his house with him. They push the old house with a little help from their friends, from one side of the island to another, to its new location. This is a traditional celebration in Chiloé, called the Minga. However, I’m in no position to clarify whether the worldwide authorship of potatoes is chilote.
Although Chiloé is called Isla Grande (‘Great Island’), it is not a terribly big island. Everyone knows everyone, so you can say it is a smaller version of Chile. They have a rich mythology based on ugly demons (Trauko), beautiful, damned sirens (Pincoya) and a Ghost ship (El Caleuche), among many others. Chilotes not only believe these myths; they repeat these legends as if they had happened to them. They tell these legends with a straight face, but as if they are about to laugh.
Chiloé is a world of wonder and a normal, quiet island at the same time – which makes me think of Ruiz’s films. At the moment, with La recta provincia premiering on National Public Television (TVN) in Chile during August and September, we Chileans are able to observe these links. (The series – which has yet to rate a mention on Ruiz’s IMDb page – subsequently received its theatrical premiere outside Chile, in a slightly shortened version, at the Rome Film Festival in October.) And yes, that guy was right: Raúl Ruiz may have been born in Puerto Montt, but he is chilote. His stories seem like lies, but they are not. Or at least we can say they are straight-faced, as if they are about to burst into laughter.
Ruizians from all over the world who watched Días de campo (2005) can find in La recta provincia the same principal characters: a mother and her son. While in Días de campo Paulita and Daniel Rubio were defined by separation, in this four-part TV series Rosalba and Paulino stay together permanently. They are also incarnated by the very same actors: seventy-year-old Chilean actress Bélgica Castro and Ignacio Agüero, the most gifted and sensitive documentary filmmaker in Chile. (I beg you: please look out for Agüero’s films wherever you can).
Rosalba and Paulino live in the Chilean countryside, taking care of a casa patronal (old colonial house) for their bosses who live in Europe. One day, Paulino hears his mother calling him, asking urgently for aguardiente (Chilean distilled drink). But Paulino realises it is not his mother who is calling. Neither is it the house’s penate – according to the narrator, a soul that lives in the kitchen and protects the house from ‘ants, fires and rats’ just for the payment of a glass of wine.
So who’s the voice? Looking for a clue, Paulino goes to the country. Under a tree he finds a bone: a human bone with little holes on it, like a flute. Ruiz’s camera stays on the tree. It’s a wild cherry tree with fruits and bees buzzing around.
‘It’s the bone of a Christian’ is the welcome exclamation by Rosalba. So she decides to look for Holy water from the church to give the bone Christian burial. But the priest is out of town, and a former policeman who wants to help the old lady is not able to handle this kind of mystery, a ‘repeating voice’ mystery. ‘The head of the carabinero is not prepared to understand the Outside Limits’, says the policeman before running away.
Finally, Rosalba and Paulino learn more about the strange bone when they receive a visitation from a nice but mysterious man: Aliro, or Devil Aliro. Aliro’s warning about the voice is clear: ‘It’s a manducador’; that is, ‘someone’s soul who died with an unfinished empacho’. In this case, the soul of somebody with a strong desire to drink aguardiente just before he died. The only way, says Aliro, to shut the soul up is to visit Picaflor’s town cemetery.
So Paulino and Rosalba start their journey; they travel around country towns to collect the other bones of the manducador to bury them. That’s when La recta provincia really begins.
Many themes from Ruiz films are present in this television series. Ghost characters confronting their doppelgängers or doubles, mirrors as communication windows between two worlds; many narrators who discuss and interrupt each other to tell stories within stories; witty dialogues using crosswords, and constant references to a world outside the film. As we Ruizians well know, all these themes are there to develop inside the spectator a cinematic experience which is like a huge ocean where we are all invited to go fishing.
In his recent interviews in Chile, Ruiz has said that his interest in filmmaking and storytelling started when he was a kid, hearing extraordinary stories from his chilote grandfather and his ‘Chilean Central Valley’-raised grandmother. So Ruiz was raised by two local storytelling traditions at once. More curious still, says Ruiz, is to realise how this Chilean country storytelling tradition may have connections with Nordic Vikings stories, millenarian Chinese fables and A Thousand and One Nights. Moreover, all these narrations are also interconnected and become part of a universal storytelling tradition.
In Ruiz’s films, narrative explorations (as in Three Lives and Only One Death  or Lost Domain ) are simultaneously explorations about the framing of narrative material in cinema. The first exploration is not possible without the second, and discussions between narrators in his films (Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting , A Place Among the Living ) are motivated by the conception they have of the past – especially how remembrances are ‘framed’ in memory.
So, if La recta provincia is part of some unified storytelling cultural tradition, is it possible to understand this conception as a new way of understanding framing and storytelling in film?
My favorite episode of the series – total running time of 170 minutes – is the second. To me, this episode embodies the parallel exploration into storytelling and framing. Rosalba and Paulino get to know Diablesa Belisaria (Chilean rock singer Javiera Parra). We already know there is not just one devil but many, and most of them live in this place called La recta provincia (roughly ‘Righteous Province’ – although recta also means ‘stubborn’). This name hides an intriguing historical reference: it is the name of a witchcraft organisation located in Chiloé which was also a secret society and an indigenous organisation existing before the arrival of the Spanish. Its members were hunted down for their activities in the nineteenth century, and even had a king – ‘El rey de la recta provincia’.
In this place, Belisaria has become the guide of the couple, so she starts telling a story about Devil Aliro, which is a completely different story from what Aliro told about himself in the first episode. Inside Belisaria’s story, Aliro recounts the story of the very same Belisaria; in this second tale, Belisaria talks with a merciful, miraculous Priest in Petorca (‘Putaendo,’ corrects Belisaria as narrator). The Priest, then, tells the story of San Germán, ‘the sinner saint’, and then San Germán tells Juan Lobo the story of bandit Pedro Pitaferro. Pitaferro, with the help of the Holy Virgin Mary, needs to collect a barrel of tears to save his soul.
So, at this time we are five stories down deep into the narrative structure, with five independent narrators – Belisaria, Aliro, the Priest, San Germán and also some voice from an unknown radio show, played by Ruiz itself! These narratives lines crisscross, creating a dual narrative dimension: a character telling the story of the narrator who is telling his story.
More noteworthy is what comes next: the storytelling goes back one step, takes the previous story-track in order to recapitulate. In the conversation between San Germán and Juan Lobo, Lobo says: ‘So what does the story you just told have to do with me?’ ‘Look and you will find’, is San Germán’s answer.
‘To cry saves?’ Lobo
But Lobo – ’Wolf’, dressed with a jacket made of sheep wool – does not get the moral of the story. ‘I don’t understand … Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?’ His complaint could be that of the viewer of a Ruiz film. But Lobo really wants to understand the meaning of San Germán’s stories so, in order to find a ‘pure sin’, he attends a National Convention of Righteous and Sinners in Petorca, where a group of sinners scream out their faults.
Later, Lobo brings a conclusion and a question to San Germán. ‘There are millions of sins … How is it possible that these Seven Sins are so popular?’. San Germán’s answer is one of those revelations in Ruiz’ films, one of those moments so intense and simple at the same time. He drops wild cherries on a plate, and each of them makes a sound. ‘In this melody there are seven musical notes. Each note is a sin. If you hear just one note, you’d go deaf. But if you mix them, that’s a melody’. San Germán and Juan Lobo continue mixing musical notes with their cherries. ‘I don’t understand it’, Lobo finally says, ‘but now I guess I know it’. Next, the camera moves to the left of their table, and we see Paulino (who’s supposed to be the spectator of the story) playing his bone-flute. Making music with the body part of a sinner.
I don’t understand it, but now I guess I know it. This could be the best example of what Ruiz expects from his explorations in storytelling, framing and universal folklore. Storytelling made for the transmission of knowledge, from one generation to another. Storytelling made for exploring deep down inside ourselves. Storytelling made to discover what cannot be said or shown by itself, something mysteriously hidden. Storytelling as a group of doves that cannot be approached without scaring them.
The day after the first episode of La recta provincia was broadcast, a TV critic at the biggest newspaper in Chile said that most Chilean viewers ‘wouldn’t get’ the show because of its narrative structure. Worse, she said it wouldn’t a bad idea to ‘drop some respect for Mr Ruiz’ and ask him to create a script which is ‘a little bit tighter’.
Beyond analysing how offensive this argument is – not only to Ruiz, but all Chilean TV viewers – it is pretty common to hear this kind of complaint in regards to his work … and not quite so euphemistically, either. Even with a sizeable group of followers in Chile who respect Ruiz’s body of work, many do not hesitate to call it ‘snobbish,’ ‘Frenchy,’ ‘fake’. Some go further: ‘His last films are not at the level of Ruiz’s really good films of the 1980s’, and it is sad ‘how he is now repeating himself’.
It is illuminating to hear such commentaries, mainly because they make something clear for all Ruiz followers: we live in solitude. The ‘others’, the Ruiz haters, sound to me like Ruiz followers who became tired, or never found what they were looking for in his films. They quit in the middle of the road. But not us. We are just like Juan Lobo. We keep on track; there is beauty and meaning at the end of the road. The sad thing is we are not able to explain this beauty when the others ask us why we are still watching Ruiz films. I don’t understand it, but now I guess I know it. It’s a very unexplainable joy. At least, to ‘know’ Ruiz’s films, it’s easier to watch than explain them. Some kind of password-world lives there, in an era when we demand immediate responses to the automatic narratives we pay for – even if they are free and we watch them on television.
Ruiz’s films live in this world. The world of narrative mysteries and ghost structures framed by mirrors. Maybe that world is located just a few miles from Puerto Montt.
Rouge thanks the editors of the Chilean film journal Mabuse, in which the Spanish-language version of this text will shortly appear.
© Gonzalo Maza and Rouge September 2007. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.