by Maribeth Thueson
There’s always a danger with teachers of the arts that instead of guiding their students to find their own creativity, they insist that their way is the only way and try to mold their students into versions of themselves, becoming more guru than teacher. And sometimes, they just get downright abusive.
This is what Ana (Déborah Falabella) finds out in Welcome, Violeta! when she joins a literary lab at a remote location in the Andes mountains run by a famous author, Holden (Darío Grandinetti). She hopes to glean some secrets from him to help her finish her novel, which is about an emotionally unstable young woman named Violeta.
At first Holden has Ana and the other students do reasonable-sounding exercises, such as writing without editing or judgment. Then the exercises get more personal, as Holden makes the students think of themselves as their characters. But then things spin out of control, as Ana starts to take on more and more of Violeta’s characteristics and behavior. Holden becomes more manipulative of Ana, calling her “Violeta,” and Ana purges everything from her life except for scribbling in her notebook and longing for Holden’s acceptance.They feed each other’s madness, leading to a tragic finale.
Brazilian director Fernado Fraiha gives the film a cold palette of blue and gray; the skies seem always to be overcast, and the mountains are stark bare rock with patches of snow. Even the house is full of hard surfaces, all concrete and glass, with hardly a comfy couch in sight. The atmosphere is bleak and oppressive, the perfect setting for loneliness and madness.
Falabella gives Ana nuanced emotions that compel the viewer to try to understand her behavior; a long scene in which she talks about her novel gives clues, if you’re paying attention. The movie is strictly from her point of view, so she’s in every scene, which means that Holden remains something of an enigma. We know that he hasn’t published anything in a while, and that he burned most existing copies of his last novel, but otherwise we experience him through Ana’s eyes, as someone who is charismatic and forceful. It might have made him a stronger antagonist to have given him his own point of view, but as it is, the mystery of his motivations make him more interesting. Is he really trying to help his students be better authors, or is he merely getting off on their discomfort and embarrassment? If his workshop is so well-known and established, have any previous students gone off the deep end? Is it all a ruse so he can set himself up as a master manipulator?
There are no easy answers to these questions, but the journey of Welcome, Violeta! is both intriguing and horrifying. Welcome, Violeta! made its world premiere this weekend at the Brooklyn Film Festival and is currently available to stream on the festival website.