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NYFF 2020: ‘The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror’ Review: A Moving Collage of Spirit and Remains

A still from The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror which depics a man sitting at a table drinking coffee
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The Tango of the Widower and its Distorting Mirror would have been Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz’s first feature-length film had it been finished and released in 1967, but, unfortunately, Ruiz passed away in 2011 before readying the film for release. This was not the end for his unfinished work, however, which arose from its long-buried tomb and was brought to life recently by his widow Valeria Sarmiento, who’s (re)creation premiered at Berlin International Film Festival in 2020. Resurrecting the 35mm negative and recreating the story and audio track from the traces, Sarmiento becomes a medium as well as a co-author, summoning her late husband’s spirit and artistic vision.

The story, which is a reconstruction, is itself about reflections and reconstructions: it centers on the titular widower, a literature professor who has recently lost his wife to suicide. The professor (Rubén Sotoconil) is lost amidst the dark clouds of grief, and his wife’s spirit haunts his dreams and casts shadows even in the light of day; he is engaged in a constant dance with death, brushing up against the edge of sanity. The Dadaist narrative strings together the ethereal and the ephemera by creating a ghostly collage of film fragments. We move through the patched together narrative like a sleepwalker or a ghost ourselves, meandering through the edge of consciousness as we descend into the darkness of the widower’s mind. Reality slowly fades in and out, developing and then degrading just like the film print that forms the film’s darkly Gothic visuals. 

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The phantasm of his wife (Claudia Paz) follows the professor everywhere, unable to let either of them rest in peace. This story is all about unease and uncertainty, prefiguring massive unrest to come: Ruiz was eventually exiled from his home country after the 1973 Chilean coup d’état and rise of Pinochet, and the film material offers us a time capsule of frozen moments just before this upheaval.

Filmed in gloomy black and white and scored with distorted spectral voices by Jorge Arriagada, the film is made up of jumbled, out of sequence images and half-formed sights and sounds. But Sarmiento, along with writer Omar Saavedra Santis, take what might seem like gibberish and draw a narrative out by reimagining Ruiz’s original script; Deaf collaborators on the film read lips and body language to decipher the dialogue of the lost/incomplete audio, enabling voice actors to recreate what was missing.

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“Haunting” might be the most obvious word to use to describe The Tango of the Widower and its Distorting Mirror, but it’s also the aptest. With its faded images looking as if they were scavenged from an antique shop, there is a profound feeling that something remarkable has been resurrected. Sarmiento’s artistry is something to celebrate. She put her own stamp on her husband’s footage, recovered from storage and restored, or reanimated and retooled, and made mesmerizing perfection. Ruiz may have passed nearly ten years ago, but he continues to move viewers even after he’s gone, and his spirit lives on through his wife and work.

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