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The surreal socialism in Salvador Allende’s Chile

After 50 years, Raúl Ruiz’s lost film, ‘Socialist Realism,’ has finally been restored and released

Fotograma de la película 'El Realismo Socialista' de Raúl Ruiz
Scene from 'Socialist Realism' by Raúl RuizCortesía Productora Poetastros (Cortesía Productora Poetastros)

Raúl Ruiz, the Chilean film director who died in 2011, couldn’t finish editing Socialist Realism before he was forced to flee the bloody 1973 coup in his country, first to Argentina and later to France. His widow, filmmaker Valeria Sarmiento, recently completed the documentary that offers a critical view of the social climate in Salvador Allende’s Chile, seamlessly transitioning between facts and a surreal, macabre fiction. The film will be screened at the 2023 San Sebastián Film Festival.

The full title of Ruiz’s film – Socialist Realism as One of the Fine Arts – may lead unsuspecting audiences to wonder whether they’ll be served a meal of revolutionary propaganda. In fact, the film is an acerbic satire of revolutionary propaganda. Radical harangues are portrayed with a mix of absurdity and patronizing tenderness as the film provides a harsh and prophetic depiction of the Chilean people’s dashed hopes in a government that would ultimately be destroyed by military factions.

It is evident that Ruiz, despite being a member of the Socialist Party and closely associated with Chile’s leftist Unidad Popular party, had a unique and unconventional perspective, full of irony, and constantly aware of the paradoxical nature of things. Much of the cast are not professional actors – the workers who take over their factory are real people. Another storyline involves enlightened bourgeois intellectuals (bourgeois being the worst possible insult) who dream of a poetic revolution. Sinister characters make appearances, hinting at their involvement in the coup and the brutal repression that will follow.

The director chose to focus on two dissidents: a crooked worker kicked out of the factory for not being revolutionary enough, and a publicist who constantly complains about capitalism. These two lost souls, who will gradually become radicalized in opposite directions, illustrate Chile’s polarization and road to disaster.

What seems like parody is real. What seems real morphs into unsettling surrealism. The film will not appeal to the dogmatic – Ruiz never was one.

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