A biopic series about Chilean author Isabel Allende might sound like an easy sell to a U.S. audience. Her 24 books have sold over 74 million copies around the world. Allende’s long list of awards includes the U.S. Presidential Medal Of Freedom she received from President Obama in 2015. Hers is the kind of life story that could have come straight out of her own novels: a woman forced into exile during Augusto Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship achieves literary stardom and finds her life falling apart due to personal tragedy.
What many fail to realize is that Allende’s status in Latin American literary circles has always been shaky. The region appears to be involved in one of those illicit love affairs that Allende describes so well: She is scorned and ridiculed in public, but apparently adored in secret—someone has to be purchasing those books, after all. It’s a shadow that hangs over Allende’s career in such a way that Isabel, the new biopic series debuting March 12 on HBO Max, makes a point to acknowledge it. At one point, an American journalist asks the author why her harshest critics are Chilean. She answers, “Because I am a Chilean, a woman and successful. It’s like that in Chile. When you have a little success, they try to tear you down.”
In some ways, this three-part limited series attempts to take Allende seriously, as a woman, a writer, and defender of democracy. Isabel is roughly based on her memoir Paula, and follows much of the book’s timeline. The first episode centers on her writing career as a journalist at a feminist magazine in Santiago, cut short when Pinochet installs a military dictatorship. The second episode finds Allende in Venezuela, where she has fled with her family and proceeds to write her blockbuster debut, The House Of The Spirits. The final episode is focused almost exclusively on the untimely death of her 29-year-old daughter Paula and how Allende found her way back to writing.
Directed by Rodrigo Basaez (Los 80) and produced by María Isabel Miquel, the production won a grant from the Chilean Consejo Nacional de TV (National Television Council) in part because they knew it would travel well. Much of the coverage in Chile has focused on the fact that this is the first Chilean TV show, shot and filmed exclusively in the country, that will be aired in the United States—as opposed to the actual star at the center of the project. Thankfully, this concern over its foreign potential hasn’t resulted in a watered-down version of Isabel Allende’s emotional roller coaster of a life; the series will delight the author’s fans through and through. Even viewers unfamiliar with Allende are likely to find the tale of a mom trying to figure out a balance between work, life, military resistance, and exile engrossing, despite some of the production’s shortcomings.
Daniela Ramírez, who plays the title role, embodies the author with total ease, tragic wig choices notwithstanding. The weight of the series lies on her—though we spend time with her first husband, her beloved grandfather, and the Argentinian musician who steals Allende’s heart, the plot doesn’t stray too far from Isabel. A lesser actor might have gone for theatrics or caricature, but Ramírez is grounded and thoughtful in her choices. Viewers are coaxed into caring only about her evolution, and what a rich one it is. This close grip serves well when examining the larger social forces that shape Allende’s life. “The personal is political” is fully on display here. So much of the drama stems from the same source: exile. Whether it’s marital tensions over Isabel smuggling people out of Chile, or the sexual tension that sparks when she bonds with a fellow refugee, or the inner tension of feeling lost in a new country, there is no separating domestic turbulence from the political chaos that swallowed the region. The point is driven further home with the use of real-life footage of both Chile’s infamous September 11, 1973 coup and the home videos the real Allende took of her family, which function as Isabel’s memories and give shape to her emotional states.
The use of Allende’s own writing in the voiceover narration (or at least of her writing style), is also one of the series’ fortes. We get a sense of why so many readers find her work intoxicating, and Isabel works best when it replicates her biggest strengths as a writer: her humor, her unabashed embrace of women’s personal desires, her sly undermining of patriarchal bullshit. This is a woman whose appetite for career success is as powerful as her willingness to follow her heart.
On the other hand, the series also has a tendency to replicate some of Allende’s more questionable attributes. At times, it descends into melodrama, inserting a life-changing phone call in the midst of a shouting match or a passionate kiss with a lover in a spot where they’re likely to be caught. Despite setting us up for the emotional punch of her daughter’s death, the last episode is a drawn-out, predictable portrayal of a mom fighting to save her child against everyone else’s protests. The author herself has said this is a fictionalized version of her life, and you can tell where the truth has unnecessarily been stretched.
Certain elements feel anachronistic, like a forced attempt to insert Allende’s past into today’s buzziest issues. Her guilt as a working mom comes off as a nod to a debate that would have been discussed differently back in the Latin America of the ’70s, especially considering how Allende’s own mother struggled with financial independence. Given the number of exiles circulating the continent then too, the idea of self-identifying as immigrants, in the way we discuss that demographic today, is questionable.
Overall, though, the series does an admirable job of respecting Allende’s biggest love affair: writing. Though its focus on her intimate life ends up occupying more time than her professional one, we are shown again and again how she sees the act of creating as her path to salvation. “Nothing is as arousing as a good story,” she says in the opening scene. This series might not turn us all into converts, but damn if it doesn’t leave us at least a tiny bit smitten.