Amália Rodrigues (1920-99) was the most beloved Portuguese singer of her time. Specializing in Fado, a soulfully mysterious form of music, she became an international sensation with her earthy, passionate voice, elegantly aquiline face and expressive movement. The lyrics of Fado, which arose from Lisbon waterfront dives and whorehouses, deal with longing, sadness and fatalism, themes which Rodrigues was familiar with. She started life as a fruit-seller and became a star while she was still in her teens, eventually awarded the Grand Cross of the order of Santiago, Portugal's highest honor. She invested every fiber of her being into her singing and Bruno de Almeida's documentary The Art of Amália pays full homage to her. David Byrne kicks things off by citing what an inspiration she was to him and we see endless footage of her performing the world over. It is indeed fortunate that so many filmed and aural recordings of her exist. Rodrigues also had a successful movie career and there are frequent tantalizing glimpses of an actress reminiscent of no less than Magnani in her emotional starkness.

Unfortunately, there are no subtitles over the many singing sequences in the film and, while the sound of her Arabic and Iberian-influenced voice is mesmerizing, after a while you yearn to know exactly what it is she is singing about. There's a brief snatch of her warbling Jerome Kern's "Long Ago and Far Away," and even though she was learning the lyrics for the first time, her halting rendition is not only gorgeous, it's definitive. The film also attains something of a splendid monotony through instance after instance of her triumphing on global stages with besotted audiences and fellow artists alike. You wonder what her personal life was like, who her involvements were with. It is only near the very end that she confesses to a deep personal complexity, of never having been a very happy person, but no real explanations are given. (It is known that in 1974, she was accused of collaborating with the overthrown former fascist regime and this brought on a severe depression. In the film, she admits to feeling suicidal--omitting the exact reason--but became gradually reconciled to life through the understandably revivifying experience of Fred Astaire movies.) But these issues of translation and personality seem like mere quibbling in the larger picture. It is more than gratifying to be introduced to a truly legendary, yet somewhat unknown, cultural figure of the past century.

--David Noh