Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Sep 18, 2007 1:08 pm 
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Reflections through the scrim: a living tradition

Plangent yet brave, Portuguese “fados” songs are a tradition that goes back to the slums of nineteenth century Lisbon and is infused with African and Brazilian influences. This is another in the illustrious music and dance series the great Spanish director Carlos Saura has been producing sporadically for fifteen years, which includes the 1992 Sevillanas, the 1995 Flamenco and the 1998 Tango. Without voiceovers or spoken introductions, each of these lush cinematic experiences consists of a sequence of performances seamlessly linked by the use of wall-sized scrims, mirrors, enlarged projected images of performers or of landscapes (notably here the traditional skyline of Lisbon), shadows and silhouettes, not to mention simple unadorned closeups. Each presents a blend of singers, musicians, and dancers in large studios and sometimes on small stages. Each sequence is self-contained, but leads quickly on to the next. The blend of stylistic simplicity and visual and aural richness makes for a sensory treat every time.

That Fados is billed as “the ultimate encounter between folk and modern dance” and “the finest ‘World Music’ soundtrack to date” means several things. First, this tribute to fadistas past and present is an unusually eclectic range of styles from classics like Amália Rodrigues, seen only in a black and white film, to vibrant young talents like Mariza or Camani’, to the major Brazilian singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso, to a hip-hop group. Each has a valid contribution to a tradition that is most clearly alive at the end in a “café” sequence where one after another young and old singers, male and female, stand up and contribute to a tightly continuous song. Second, unlike Flamenco and Tango, the fado doesn’t seem to involve a particular dancing style. Hence the dance is something added, and considsts mainly of modern interpretive styles choreographed by Patrick de Bana. One thing unique her and different from flamenco is the presence of harp, keyboard, mandolin and lute. As with Spanish music, the level of artistry with the plucked string is awesome and galvanizing.

The fado was defined first for Saura by Amalia Rodrigues, one of whose songs contains the lines, “Love, jealousy / ash and fire / pain and sin. / All this exists / All this is sad. / All this is fado.” Love-longing is an element; so is a nostalgia for home expressed in the unique word “saudade.” The fado has a distinct mood and sound, but it’s not for me to try to define it. Suffice it to say that its rhythms are suffused with sadness, yet comforting, and that the mood is plaintive, yet determined; mournful, yet proud. It can take revolutionary politics as its subject as well as private experience. This film was an eye-opener for me; I thought the genre was a bit passé. Obviously that is not at all true.

As with his earlier music and dance films Saura, who lists himself as the overall production designer, manages to start out with sequences that are powerful and irresistibly appealing, and yet move progressively toward more and more compelling performances. At the end this time the screen is filled with nothing but the eye of a big wooden camera. Looking into it seems to say: this is an inexhaustible tradition whose depths we have barely begun to plumb.

Shown among the press screenings of the New York Film Festival 2007, this is a sidebar item and not an official selection, but it’s another jewel in the crown of Saura’s musical and dance series and deserves to be seen, and seen again.

The cinemtography is by Eduardo Serra and Jose Luis López Linares. The music is under the supervision of Carlos do Carmo, and the editing is by Julia Juaniz. All the work is impeccable.

Fados, 99 mins.., debuted at Toronto September 2007. Screened for this review at the NYFF. Other festivals. US limited theatrical release 6 March 2009.

See also my review of Saura's Iberia (2005), which also discusses his Flamenco (1995).

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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