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Lila Downs (Photo: New York Films)

Directed by
Carlos Saura
Produced by
Ivan Dias, Luis Galvão Teles & Antonio Saura
Released by New Yorker Films
Portuguese with English subtitles
Portugal/Spain. 88 min. Not Rated
Carlos do Carmo, Ricardo Rocha, Jaime Santos, Mariza, Miguel Poveda, Toni Garrido, Camané, Catarina Moura, Cuca Roseta, Mario Pacheco, NBC/SP & Wilson, Lucília do Carmo, Lila Downs, Argentina Santos, Victor Jara Brigade, Lura, Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque, Pedro Gomes, Paulo do Carvalho, Maria De Nazaré, Vicente da Camara, María de Nazaré, Carminho, Ana Sofia Varela, Pedro Castro & Joel Pina

For decades, Carlos Saura has brought wider attention to the music and dance traditions of the Iberian Peninsula through eight films. With Fados, he completes his musical trilogy, adding to Flamenco (1995) and Tango (1998).

What distinguishing his work from so many other all-star films that celebrate slices of world culture is Saura’s fascination in how music and dance grow out of specific environments. From the opening drums of Grupo Kola San Jon recreating a festival parade in a Lisbon neighborhood of immigrants, Saura magically sets the tone that this is not a traditional tour of Portugal as the sweet home of fados. (Like the blues, they are cathartically mournful songs with rhythmic guitar accompaniment that originated among the poor in the 19th century.)

The camera constantly roves through a huge studio transformed into a cityscape through screens and lighting, which literally project a Lisbon where fados springs eternal throughout history, despite censorship and revolution. The changing urban scenery surrounds performers—from purist legends to new stars and nouvelle fusions, each representing a different style or tribute to a famous interpreter. In one of the most visually striking sequences, Carlos do Carmo, from a family of renowned fadistas, sings the very descriptive “Man in the City” while strolling through a collage of rolling images of Lisbon transforming from night time carousing to dawn awakening. (Mexican chanteuse Lila Downs performs a tribute to his mother.)

Famous singers are saluted in projections of rare film and recording footage, including Alfredo Marceneiro from the 1950’s and the incomparable Amália Rodrigues, the “Queen of Fado” from the 1930’s to the end of the century. Brazilian Caetano Veloso, who performed with her, sings an homage in front of a flickering montage.

Saura emphasizes how émigrés from Portugal’s former colonies have nourished fados, bringing to it their own feelings and rhythms, even with hip hop, rejuvenating a genre that dictatorships had tried to co-opt. Rousing footage and songs from the 1974 Carnation Revolution, which overthrew a military dictatorship, illustrate how the people recaptured fados.

Today’s reigning international face of fados, Mariza is sensuously charismatic, but her performances in duets with dancers seem to strain too hard to make links between fados and flamenco. In one number, the dancers, cloaked in sheets, look like Martha Graham imitators. However, shots of ocean sails work well as a shared image between the mother country and the colonies, though some of the repeated sunrise and sunset projections become a bit precious.

The climax presents fados in its most traditional format, in a café where young and old fadistas, one by one, grab attention in a can-you-top-this competition that culminates in thrilling duets and combinations. It is a glorious conclusion that clearly places fados in the world music pantheon, and will make viewers, fans, or newcomers, anxious for the soundtrack to become more readily available. Nora Lee Mandel
March 6, 2009



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