Actress Francisca Gavilán grew up listening to the music of folksinger Violeta Parra in her home, quietly. Parra’s music wasn’t exactly forbidden during Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship, but the authorities frowned upon it.
“We sang it silently,” Gavilán says.
Now, as the star of the biopic “Violeta Went to Heaven,” Gavilán sings Parra’s music professionally. The film opened Friday in New York, bringing the story of one of Latin America’s most famous musicians and iconic figures to the big screen in the United States. The movie will also play in Chicago, Los Angeles, and other U.S. cities.
One of the early exponents of Latin America’s “nueva canción,” or “new song” movement, a style of folk music that flourished in the 1950s and 1960s and continues today, Parra dedicated her life to both songwriting and documenting Chile’s traditional music. Parra penned some of the genre’s classics, including “Volver a los 17,” “Me gustan los estudiantes,” and “Gracias a la vida.”
Like many other nueva canción musicians, Parra identified with the political left and became an icon of protest against injustice across the region after her death in 1967.
Wood first discussed the idea of a fictional portrayal of the Chilean legend a decade ago with Parra’s son Angel -- an accomplished musician in his own right, and the author of the memoir about his mother from which the film takes its name.
“To remember her is to remember the best of Chile, because she preserved the best of Chile,” Wood told the Huffington Post in an interview ahead of the New York opening. “She took a very clear look at herself, a clear look at her country, at her roots, her people.”
Actress Gavilán says it wasn’t easy taking on such a towering historical figure.
“It was always a very difficult role, from the first conversation with Andrés until the last day of filming,” Gavilán said. “We had to do it very responsibly.”
Gavilán portrays an extremely strong-willed and emotionally complex woman who earned a modicum of recognition during her life for her music, as well as her paintings and tapestries, which she showed at the Louvre in Paris while living abroad.
The music itself also posed a challenge.
Gavilán never learned to play an instrument and hadn’t sang since she was a child before taking on the role. But under the instruction of Angel Parra, she learned to play the guitar and the Venezuelan cuatro -- a small guitar with four nylon strings -- well enough to perform all but one of the songs in the film. The producers uploaded the soundtrack to SoundCloud ahead of the film’s release.
The film enjoyed commercial success in Chile, becoming the most-watched national release of 2011, according to La Tercera.
Director Andrés Wood is building a reputation for cinematically reconstructing Chile’s twentieth-century past. His 2004 film “Machuca” explored the 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende through the relationship of two young boys from different social classes who become friends at school. Wood’s next project is a television mini-series on the 40th anniversary of the military dictatorship in September.
But Wood says viewers need not be Chilean history buffs.
“Audiences have connected with the film very emotionally,” Wood said. “So don’t feel intimidated if you don’t know much about Violeta Parra, because I think you’ll enjoy it anyway.”
Watch the trailer for the film above.