“Isabel,” like all good biopics, reveals the person behind the legend, humanizing its protagonist and reminding viewers that the path to greatness is never assured and rarely predicted. It has plenty of literary Easter eggs for fans of the author, especially when they recount Isabel’s childhood. And the miniseries shines in dramatizing the process of creation. We see Isabel begin her writing career and flounder in her first editorial meeting, not knowing what to present or even where to start. At home, she gets the idea of satirizing (ineffective) types of husbands and soon she’s doodling. Her editor encourages her and she grows in confidence, writing one song after another. It’s an inspiring case study of how someone begins to write, finds inspiration, and perfects their craft.
Allende’s writing is political and so is her life, with “Isabel” portraying her activism as an accident and heroism, avoiding the temptation to make her out of the lion. The most obvious example comes after the assassination of Allende’s uncle, Chilean President Salvador Allende, in a coup that made General Augusto Pinochet Chile’s brutal dictator. Isabel goes to see one of her colleagues from the magazine and notices the violence inflicted on her by the new regime. Worried about her life, she helps him get out of the country. And she continues to help people escape, knowing it puts her family in danger, until her children are kidnapped on a state warning.
More than once we see Isabel making this choice of putting her goals above her children – whether it’s resisting Pinochet or fighting for her own happiness – and I appreciate how the show doesn’t. don’t demonize or romance her for it. Instead, he lets those choices breathe, showing how they end up making her the writer she becomes. Take the way they portray his exile in Venezuela as a difficult but not defining time. She can’t find a job there, falls into a depression, has an affair. And she abandons her children, leaving them behind to see if she has better luck in Spain with her lover. But “Isabel” refuses to damn her for it. Yes, it shows the pain caused by this choice, but it also connects it to the later success of our heroine. Because it is after her return to her family, ashamed but not broken, that she begins to write her first book, La casa de los espiritus / The House of Spirits. You can argue (and “Isabel” seems to put it that way), one thing leads to another; his own complicated relationship with his family allows him to probe the depths of his national and personal history and turn it into a masterpiece.