In what might be called reverse cultural colonialism, many musicologists consider the Brazilian fado a product of Brazilian popular musical forms, re-imported back into Portugal, where it perhaps mixed with lingering Moorish influences. The traditional fado is often described with terms of wistful longing, telling stories of love and loss among the Portuguese working class. It is passionate music that captured the fascination of Spanish director Carlos Saura, ultimately inspiring Fados (trailer here), the third film of his triptych of musical performance documentaries (following Tango and Flamenco), which opens in New York this Friday.
Old school fados essentially consist of a vocalist (singing with eyes shut), while backed by a small ensemble, usually including a Portuguese guitar (resembling the oud) and a Spanish or Classical guitar. However, Saura defines fado broadly enough to cover some very diverse groups, even extending to the Hip Hop-oriented NBC, SP & Wilson. He also includes some purely instrumental performances, like “Variações,” a virtuoso duet between Ricardo Rocha and Jaime Santos, on Portuguese and Spanish guitars, respectively.
While firmly identifying the film with Portugal (specifically Lisbon), Saura assembles an international line-up, including probably the two greatest standouts of the film: Lila Downs of Mexico, and Mariza from the former Portuguese colony of Mozambique. On her solo feature, “Moçambique,” Mariza exudes charisma as her voice rings out clear as a bell. Downs (often breaking with the tradition of clenched eyes), passionately sings “Foi Na Travessa Da Palha,” featuring quite suggestive lyrics and some interesting instrumentation, including the harp and a tenor saxophonist, who even takes a brief but jazzy solo.
For fado novices, the biggest names in Saura’s film will be Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso—two acknowledged giants of Brazilian music. In what is arguably the centerpiece of the film, Buarque performs “Fado Tropical” in front of archival video of the Carnation demonstrations, explicitly linking the Portuguese and Brazilian authoritarian experiences. For Veloso’s performance, Saura wisely keeps it simple, allowing the Brazilian legend to play his own guitar accompaniment as he sings “Extraña Forma de Vida,” a lament perfectly in keeping with the fado spirit.
While fado was divorced from dancing by the moral dictates of the old regime, Saura takes some liberties reconnecting the two, commissioning some striking choreography that occasionally threatens to overshadow the music. One of the best dance numbers is “Fado Batido,” is essentially an instrumental choreography showcase from the exuberant Brigada Victor Jara ensemble.
Saura and his cinematographers, José Luis López Linares and the frequent Claude Chabrol collaborator Eduardo Serra, create striking visuals through their dramatic use of warm, vibrant colors, reflected images, and light and shadow. There are no droning talking-heads to be heard, just musical performances, respectfully and artfully filmed by Saura. Oddly, its only shortcoming is that it is sometimes frustratingly difficult for the uninitiated to identify the lesser known artists and titles. (I suppose that is what the internet is for.) Elegantly crafted, Fados is a rich experience for eye and ear that ought to win converts for this uniquely Portuguese music. It opens Friday in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.