Film Review: Fados

Carlos Saura&#8217;s valentine to <i>fado</i>, Portugal&#8217;s blues music, is exciting despite the director&#8217;s imposition of dance production numbers which add a note of dissonance.
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Carlos Saura may be the only movie director on Earth who can turn one musician on a lighted stage into a riveting cinematic experience. In Fados, he explores a lyrical music tradition that some trace to Lisbon. Wherever it emerged from, it’s undoubtedly Portugal’s blues music. Like the Spanish director’s Flamenco (1995), this documentary is a delightful, comprehensive look at a folk-art form, but here there are few of the intimate sequences which distinguish the earlier film. Fado does not have a dance tradition as flamenco does, so Saura added it, creating musical production numbers. The dancing, skilled but contrived, adds a veneer of music-video banality to Fados that didn’t exist in Flamenco, where the art form often reached its cinematic epiphany in a lone musician or dancer.

Fortunately, the talent of the fado artists will be so evident, even to those who know nothing about the Portuguese art form, that Fados can be enjoyed even when it means having to wade through some overwrought dance number to hear the soulful heart of the tradition. It’s the diversity of that tradition, which Saura plumbs with older artists and contemporary stars like Mariza and Camané, that will grip any audience. The fado castiços, for instance, are ballads like flamenco’s traditional bulerias; in other incarnations, fado thumps with African and Brazilian rhythms. The lyrics are poetry and rap patois, accompanied mostly by guitar and Portuguese guitar, a mandolin-like instrument. There are a few sublime a capella numbers, the best by the legendary fado artist Argentina Santos. Homages to past fado artists are less successful, static in comparison to the performance-oriented aesthetic of the movie, which was filmed mostly on a stage.

Fados is considered the third in a folklore trilogy which began with Flamenco (1995) and Tango (1998), but actually this is Saura’s eighth film inspired by music. Blood Wedding (1981) may be the best-known of these, but Saura’s short Sevillanas (1992), about the Seville flamenco tradition, never released in the U.S., is wonderful, as is Carmen (1983), based on Merimee’s play and performed by flamenco artists. Saura, born during Franco’s authoritarian Spain, has been making documentary and narrative films for 50 years, his work often tied to or imbued with his cultural heritage. The most consistent quality of his oeuvre is an astonishing skill for framing and for color, and in the musical films, an ability to create cinematic renditions of other art forms that are true to the art, nevertheless possessing an intimacy only the camera is capable of.

Saura’s close-ups of fingers, grasping a guitar pick or sliding across the strings, and of the open mouths of singers, even of their teeth, are private and often sensual, and perfectly capture the spirit of fado, which is to peer into the soul. These shots are evident in the sequences that portray a lone singer, and in the duet of Mariza and Poveda, of Spanish guitar and Portuguese guitar. They are in stark contrast to the film’s production numbers, which are dissonant, one form often subtracting out the other.

Saura saves the best for last in a sequence that springs from his imagination: In the House of Fados, a set with table and chairs, the fado artists take turns in a vocal duel that’s so thrilling it is clear why the eyes of fado singers traditionally remain closed. It is so that the soul escapes through the voice.