Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Premiere Brazil: Mystery of Samba

Meet Marisa Monte, song-hunter. Though known as an international Musica Popular Brasileira (MPB) star, Monte has wide-ranging interests in many forms of Brazilian music, most certainly including Samba. In the new documentary Mystery of Samba, she profiles the senior statesmen of Samba affiliated with the Portele Samba School in Rio de Janeiro, while searching for classic unrecorded Sambas. It joins the Bossa Nova of Out of Tune and Humberto Teixieira’s baiĆ£o music heard in Man Who Bottled Clouds in a distinctly musically flavored Premiere Brazil film series at the MoMA (maybe there will be a choro film next year).

As our guide to the musical legacy of Portela, Monte gets assists from Zeca Pagodinha and Paulinho da Viola, but she is the film’s primary contemporary voice, which is a good thing given the warmth of her on-screen presence. Having a family connection to the school, she seems to establish immediate rapport with the veterans of Portela and in some cases their survivors. With a voice beautifully suited to the impromptu a cappella duets she performs with her interview subjects, her interest in preserving these lost songs comes across as a completely genuine Alan Lomax-like impulse. Of course, it also gives her an opportunity to sing some cool, previously unheard of tunes.

Comparisons to the Buena Vista Social Club are probably inevitable with a film like this, which is fair enough. Rio’s Samba schools are themselves essentially music-based fraternal organizations, perhaps closer akin to the parading societies of New Orleans. Regardless, the old gentlemen of Samba show they can still get it done, with a party atmosphere pervading throughout Mystery. Most have roots both at the school and in the surrounding neighborhood which go back decades. Seu Argemiro is a bit of an exception. Though of the same generation, he is relatively new to Portela, but fit right in when they heard his Sambas.

Directed by Carolina Jabor and Lula Buarque de Hollanda, Mystery is lovely to look at, conveying the charm of the surrounding Madureira neighborhood and Portela’s blue and white colors. It is a vibrant film with crisp and clear subtitles, but the English trailer on youtube appears distorted, so the Portuguese version will give you a better sense of the film. It screens again at MoMA this Saturday.